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Strategies for Sustainable Reverse Logistics


How collaboration can reduce waste, save time, and decrease costs


This article examines the intricacies of reverse logistics within the context of sustainable supply chain management. It aims to dissect the operational challenges and highlight alternative and innovative strategies to enhance efficiency and sustainability.


My name is Karan Monga. I am a researcher specializing in Sustainable Supply Chain Management. In this article, I aim to clarify the complexities of reverse logistics, emphasizing its impact on improving supply chain efficiency and making the process more sustainable through the use of alternative strategies. I use theoretical frameworks and a thorough and systematic examination of empirical evidence, complemented by my personal experience.

Reverse logistics encompasses a broad range of activities surrounding the return of goods, including the reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, and reselling of products. These processes have become increasingly crucial as consumer behavior shifts and return rates escalate. Notably, the 2023 holiday season marked a significant spike in returns across various sectors, reflecting deeper systemic issues within the current reverse logistics frameworks employed by retailers. For instance, sporting goods and outdoor equipment returns saw an unprecedented increase of 76% year-over-year, while online cosmetics and toys experienced similar surges in returns, 73% and 68%, respectively. These statistics highlight the growing challenge and underscore the urgency of addressing inefficiencies in returns processing.1


A majority of retailers have identified that returns processing improvements are needed, with some retailers narrowing return windows and increasing the amount of non-refundable items.1 Reverse logistics has not evolved as quickly as consumers. Currently, online products are returned via FedEx, UPS, USPS LTL, or other carriers, while in-store returns are brought back to the nearest store or dropped off and then shipped to return centers. Returns are processed either once tracking is verified or upon receipt of goods. From the return center, the items are trucked to disposition centers, where the goods are evaluated for further processing. Return centers are scattered across the country and may be several hundred to thousands of miles away from disposition centers.2

Current reverse logistics has limitations that impact operational costs and customer loyalty. Restocking fees, lost sales potential, damages, and manpower affect a company’s bottom line.3

Companies are responding to these challenges as more retailers recognize that improvements are needed. Responses include tightening returns policies, narrowing return windows, and increasing the amount of non-refundable goods. Despite these stricter policies, consumer returns continue to increase.1

Consumer awareness about the environmental impact of disposal practices demands a reevaluation of traditional reverse logistics strategies.4 In response, “the business sector is restructuring its supply chain network to control returns to satisfy increasing pressure to incorporate environmental and sustainability concerns as a result of legislation and rising public awareness.”4 (Section 5. Discussion) Despite these changes, the full impact of reverse logistics may not be realized by consumers.

Innovative Alternatives

By implementing alternative strategies for reverse logistics, we can mitigate these challenges and enhance sustainability and efficiency. Collaboration and trust develop a culture of shared responsibility and accountability among supply chain partners, which is required for long-term success. To foster collaboration, retailers and manufacturers need to use “consistent communication channels, develop shared standards and metrics, create joint incentives and rewards…based on respect and understanding.”5 (Hadač et al., 2023). Trust can be built among participants by enabling better visibility and transparency across the reverse supply chain. Collaboration in the reverse supply chain is still in its infancy compared to forward logistics.6

Collaboration with Stakeholders

By involving stakeholders in the return grading process, local partners are equipped with the skills to evaluate a product’s condition, thus speeding up processing. By localizing this service, we see greater efficiency and stronger engagement. Collaborative grading adds a level of credibility and increases the quality of products and customer satisfaction.

I have seen that cooperation and partnerships in repair and refurbishment allow retailers and manufacturers to reduce the environmental footprint of returned products by prolonging their usefulness. Localizing grading and repair or refurbishment allows communities to reduce waste that directly affects them. Partnerships with local repair shops are environmentally friendly and cost-effective.7

Recovering value is a by-product of collaboration. Companies that focus on resale, recycling, or refurbishment minimize environmental impact and maximize the return. Refurbished products can be resold at a discount, reselling products targets other market segments, and recycling end-of-life products recovers resources.3

Collaborating with Consumers

Customer engagement is a key factor in creating sustainable returns management. Companies can educate consumers on the impact of return management, although the use of stricter returns policies is not a deterrent.1 Focusing on targeted incentives and rewards can encourage customers to prioritize sustainability whenever possible. Amazon has partnered with Kohl’s to take in-person returns. Amazon reduces the amount of shipping miles, and Kohl’s benefits from customers entering their store.2

Other financial incentives have proven effective for businesses that have chosen to upgrade electronics. Several companies exist nationwide that will pick up electronics, computers, laptops, tablets, hard drives, etc, and refurbish or resell them for the customer. This is beneficial for both parties as the business can safely and securely dispose of unused IT equipment while recovering value from the sale, and the recycler resells these products locally, often at a discount, extending their lifespans.8 By rewarding mindful behavior, consumers become aware of their impact on reverse logistics. Incentives encourage consumers to participate in the circular economy, creating a community of advocates engaged in building a more sustainable future.

Alternate Fulfillment Methods

Decentralizing the returns process has a greater impact on local environments and communities. Current processing centers pose logistical problems, such as transportation efficiency and high costs. Local fulfillment options are effective tools that improve operational efficiency and lead to responsive and flexible supply chains.9

Peer-to-peer fulfillment decreases the number of transportation miles by identifying regional demands for returned items and distributing them to local customers instead of shipping them long distances. This option reduces the environmental impact associated with shipping.10 Sustaining and building the local economy is often the result of peer-to-peer fulfillment.

Working with organizations like Goodwill or surplus stores is important for maximizing recovery value from returned products. When overstock is returned, partnerships with discount stores provide value for companies as well as consumers looking for a discounted price. Waste can be reduced by using various approaches to recapturing returns and prolonging the usage of usable items. Financial benefits from partnerships are realized alongside social impact through charities and waste reduction on local and national levels.2

Via these joint ventures, we’re not merely solving reverse logistic problems but also shaping the principles of supply chain management.


To further the goal of sustainable reverse logistics, environmental issues need to shape further discussions surrounding fulfillment. Cutting down on the carbon footprint of transportation miles is necessary for sustainable deliveries. By reducing the distance traveled by returned products, we reduce emissions and the impact on the environment of the supply chain.11

The power of collaboration in reverse logistics cannot be overstated. Collaborative efforts bring innovative solutions to the challenges of returns management. From collaborative grading and peer-to-peer fulfillment to partnerships with refurbishers, charities, and surplus stores, collaboration has proven to be instrumental in optimizing returns processes and maximizing value recovery. Collaboration fosters efficiency, sustainability, and social responsibility in supply chain operations. As I continue my research and advocacy in this field, I am committed to pursuing collaborative solutions that optimize business processes and contribute to a more sustainable and equitable world.

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