How far does the clothes you return travel? – We tracked returns from e-commerce companies with gps

Category: Innovation (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: Sweden

Organisation: Breakit

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 11 May 2019

Credit: Caroline Englund, Erik Wisterberg

Project description:

How far does the clothes you return travel? – We tracked returns from e-commerce companies with gps.

The market for online shopping in Sweden is bigger than ever, but almost one third of what people are buying is being returned. 

But how far does the returns travel? Our examination with secret gps-trackers shows that returns from Sweden’s biggest ecommerce companies are sent to Estonia and Poland – just for repacking – before they are sent back to the store in Sweden. One of the parcels we track went 2360 kilometers.

Impact reached:

Through our investigation we put a bigger focus on what impact returns have on the climate. We also stressed the problem with customers who  buys a lot of clothes online and then send them back. 

The story highlights two big social phenomenons – the climate and the growing ecommerce.

It shows that the hard competition between ecommerce companies has led to generous terms like free shipping and free returns that has created a customer behavior that is untenable in the long run.


Techniques/technologies used:

We bought clothes from five big Swedish ecommerce companies. When we got the parcels we hid gps-trackers from the company Automile in them and sent them back. 

Then we could track the parcels on their way from our computers and see how far they went. We could see that some of them went to Poland and Estonia just for repacking.  

The biggest ecommerce company – Ellos – had refused to answer questions about how they handle returns. Now we could see that they sent their returns to Poland.


What was the hardest part of this project?

It was to find out where to find the best GPS-trackers and to make sure they worked out. 

What can others learn from this project?

That you can use tech to get answers you don’t get other ways. Tracking things with GPS is an effective way of showing exactly how far a returned parcel travel.

Project links: