Is there a right way to shop in the age of COVID-19?
It has been a month and two days since I stepped outside my house, and so far, I’ve done a pretty fine job at distracting myself within these walls: swapping tables and chairs throughout various rooms, testing out the most zoomable corners, completing the frames of jigsaw puzzles. Deep down I know my coy antics can’t last.
Online shopping is tempting me every time I open my browser. There are hundreds of emails piling up in my inbox, offering one-of-a-kind deals straight from the (remote) office of the CEO.
Stores are providing discounts to increase dwindling sales, enticing the recipients of their artful e-blasts to invest in wardrobe essentials like leisurewear. Attentive, an e-commerce marketing platform, suggests companies should heavily discount their goods and use cause marketing to get consumers to turn their heads towards luxury goods.
Should I cave to my consumer fantasies? Or will I be putting others at risk? A few publications have already weighed in on the role of the consumer during a pandemic. One waives the moral go-ahead, quoting shipping and logistics experts who green-light online shopping as safe-enough. Another claims a purchase is like a vote for the underdog —that is, if shoppers choose to patron local and small businesses over Amazon.
While that 75% off sale is usually enough for me to click, it’s also that during this time of social distancing online shopping keeps us safe while giving us opportunities to financially support smaller brands that challenge corporate norms. But is online retail going to be able to sustain smaller brands?
Even though packages are peppered like ornaments on the lawns of nearly every house in my neighborhood — nationwide, tech-enabled shopping is not that commonplace. All e-commerce combined accounts for only 11% of total retail sales, according to 2019 Census Bureau data. Furthermore, only 1.5% of the value of all ‘Fast-Moving Consumer Goods’ — the kind of low-priced and frequently purchased personal and home care products you’d find in a drug store — were purchased online in the United States.
Accordingly, our e-commerce infrastructure is not as sophisticated or developed as we might infer from the speed by which we receive online orders. Many warehouses are centralized, which places workers closer together inside singular facilities, and makes packages travel further from place of origin, to a distribution center, and then to your doorstep.
It’s unavoidable: global consumers’ increased reliance on e-commerce in the ensuing months will put newfound pressure on this underdeveloped home-delivery infrastructure — and thus, the environment. A 2020 study comparing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of online and traditional shopping, published by Environmental Science and Technology, reported that for more than 75% of purchases, the carbon footprint is higher when online ordering personal and home care products compared to going to the local store.
But with many brick-and-mortar options closed, what can we do? Is there a way online shoppers can minimize their impact? Condensing purchases into a single order or picking them up at a distribution center can help. But if you choose to cast your so-called-vote for another conscious choice, a small business, it often means placing an order for one or two items that have to travel hundreds of miles, if not states, to get to your door.
Unfortunately, there’s rarely a clear winner, a perfect combination of the best product, from the best company, with the most sustainable delivery method. Being a conscious consumer, in a time of coronavirus or otherwise, often requires prioritizing between a constellation of things you care about: the environment, or the worker, your budget, or maybe just the best face cream.
I try to lean towards ‘shopping abstinence’, but sometimes I’m foiled by clever ads claiming I’ll save $10 dollars in a sale or 600 gallons of water on an eco-friendly T-shirt (knowing full well that any purchase uses more resources than no purchase at all). While purchasing decisions seem to never completely satisfy, aligning your values with your actions can feel like a small win-win during times like these. We know there are multiple angles to every topic, and hope within Newday’s portfolios you find the focus, stories, and causes that relate to you.