UPSer Rethinks Returns
Aparna Mehta, Global Solutions Director
Have you ever had something shock you out of your bubble? For me, it was when I discovered that free returns aren’t necessarily free. At least, not the way we usually think about them. There was a time when I would order three or four sizes of the same shirt, keep the one that fit best, and return the others. As a result of a recent UPS innovation challenge, however, I’ve started to rethink that behavior.
The convenience of free returns comes with effects we might not always think about. I was shocked to discover that a majority of returns go directly to a landfill: 4 billion pounds of returned clothing ends up in the landfill each year. I always thought returned items were put back in inventory for someone else to buy, but it’s more complicated than just placing a shirt back on the shelf.
The more I thought about it, I realized this was a logistics problem, and that I, of all people, should be able to solve it. I thought, “What if returned items went directly to the next consumer instead of back to the store before being sent to the next person? What if retailers provided incentives to consumers to participate and keep returns out of inventory and, ultimately, the landfill? And what if UPS could play a role in that process?”
A seed was planted. I shared my idea during a TED@UPS talk in 2018 and was excited to enter an internal innovation competition later that year. More than 80 teams comprised of 240 UPSers across the U.S. submitted ideas for new business opportunities and operations solutions for UPS. Our team developed an idea, Greenturn, from an initial concept to a business strategy and competed in three rounds of presentations to UPS leadership, including members of the UPS Management Committee.
We were thrilled when Greenturn was selected as one of four proposals to progress to the incubation stage. During this stage, we conducted extensive interviews with retailers who might be interested in a peer-to-peer returns solution, and learned that the marketplace is not ready to relinquish quality control to customers—yet. Now, we are collaborating with other UPSers to explore the viability and market desirability of radical new models that will improve the returns process.
I don’t see this change in direction as a failure. Rather, it was a chance to learn something new and gather insights that will make our next big idea even stronger. I’m proud to work at a company that welcomes new ideas from all levels of the organization, while also investing in concepts that are smart for business and for the environment.