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Throwaway Comment: Is eCommerce to blame for our increasingly wasteful society?

This week’s Ethical eCommerce article is coming to you ever so slightly later than usual – but rest assured it’s still Tuesday here in Toronto, where some of the blubolt crew are attending Shopify Unite! To check out the other posts in this series, which will run until the end of June, just head here.

man standing in front of graffiti tagged wall beside rubbish bags and rubbish bins

The rise of eCommerce has revolutionised the way we shop, research products, make purchasing decisions and much more besides. Today we ask whether these new patterns in our collective behaviour are having a negative impact upon society in terms of the levels of waste we produce, and if so, what can be done in terms of remedial action?

Since its conception, eCommerce has opened up society to unprecedented novelty and choice. Shopping has been enabled at any time, something which was once unthinkable for those born just a generation ago, when even bricks and mortar stores ran on greatly reduced hours, closing for entire days of the week. Not only have we been catapulted into an “open all hours” mindset, but the way that we shop is starting to evolve. With cheap or free returns offered by the majority of online retailers, a “buy before you try” mentality has set in, with shoppers often ordering far more than they intend to keep.

In this sense, eCommerce is doing to shopping what some argue dating apps have done to human relationships. Immediate, impulsive connection is easy, commitment is perhaps more of an afterthought. Many customers will think nothing of ordering dresses in three sizes, keeping only the one that fits best – or purchasing multiple styles with the intention of returning all but one, bringing the changing room experience into their own homes.

This behaviour isn’t necessarily suggestive of increased or wasteful consumption (the end result may still be a single purchase) but is indicative of a growing acceptance of excess and impulsive cart filling. Compulsive shopping is a behavioural disorder that, similar to gambling, affects as many as six per cent of people in the United States, and eCommerce undoubtedly fans the flames for those who struggle, with everything about the tempting online experiences that we design being geared towards an easily completed purchase.

As online retailers, we face something of a Catch 22. On one hand, of course, we want sales and lots of them! We’re chasing a high conversion rate, and we aim for repeat custom. On the other hand, we want fewer returns and glowing reviews concerning the quality and longevity of our products. The “fast fashion” industry has come under significant fire in recent years for promoting a culture of more or less disposable garments, priced so aggressively that people can conceivably buy to wear once. A 1p tax on these brands was recently rejected in the UK but this issue is going nowhere, as conscious consumerism rises and the novelty of affordable, accessible choice is replaced by a growing discomfort around the wasteful nature of the industry.

rubbish bin with painted faceBrands like Boohoo are starting to acknowledge the backlash and taking the incentive before flack starts to really ramp up, with many retailers offering recycling schemes, or collections that boast especially eco-conscious credentials. The general industry picture is telling though: clothing sales are up, but the lifespan of clothes is shorter. This is a trend that will take a long time to reverse, if it ever does.

What does the future look like for wasteful online purchasing? Although more and more online retailers are starting to acknowledge their responsibility in these matters, ultimately any significant driver for change will need to be consumer-led. This is because less consumption goes against everything that most brands strive for; the industry pours vast amounts of money into research and innovation around reducing friction within the buying process, and barriers to purchase are constantly reducing, either via the introduction of “one-click ordering” functionality, hardware such as Amazon Dash buttons and diversified payments options, such as those offered by Klarna. Will the rise of VPAs like Alexa increase our spending habits? Probably. As AI gets better at predicting what we need, chances are we won’t even have to open our mouths to request an item – supplies will be delivered to our doorsteps automatically.

The World Bank reports that global municipal solid waste generation levels are at 1.3 billion tonnes per year—and this is expected to nearly double to 2.2 billion by 2025. The only way out of this spiral is a consumer-led reduction of consumption, but online brands can do their part without sacrificing conversion rates or sales, by ensuring the products they sell are designed with high quality and longevity in mind. Everyone wins in this instance; consumers get a great, long-lasting product with minimal guilt over their consumption, and retails get glowing reviews, loyalty and can command higher prices for the items that they offer.

Ultimately, if we are to move towards a more circular economy, high-quality products which last and slow down resource loops are the key. Slowing the resource loops goes against current fast fashion trends and therefore appears the most difficult approach to pursue, but as the tide of public opinion gradually turns, and people start to long for the quality over quantity attitude of days gone by, eCommerce is perfectly poised to lend its retail experience to this new consumer experience, leading a change for the common good. Many factors are at play in terms of the way our society has fallen into the habit of overconsumption, and eCommerce is certainly not blameless in this regard, but there’s little doubt that as a force hardwired to respond to consumer demand, it can and it will have its own role within the resistance.

 

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