Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Online Shopping

I was having a conversation with an acquaintance recently and she told me that she had never shopped online. She is not of my generation (actually, she was a hippie at Woodstock when she was younger than I am now) so I wasn't that surprised- but she does like beautiful things, so I asked her if she isn't sometimes tempted to look for items she can't find here in online stores. "If I can't get it here, I'm not supposed to own it," she said. "Isn't there enough stuff to choose from here? How much stuff do I need, anyway?"

'If I can't get it here, I'm not supposed to own it.' Isn't that the opposite of how we usually feel about goods? That if we see it and like it and can afford it, we should be able to have it? That we should be able to have the entire world and have it now- why not? That's the modern privilege. And the internet makes it possible- we can shop in the middle of the night if we want to. We can buy goods in Alaska and have it in Sydney within the week. We can get what we want more cheaply and with more ease by sitting at a screen and clicking 'check out' than by walking ten minutes up the street to a shop.

But at what cost? The virtues of online shopping are easy to extol- fast, easy, direct- they're also all virtues that centre on the self and our personal comfort, aren't they? 

What about the significant downsides of online shopping? I don't think they get spoken about quite as much. If you can get a good cheaply and fast from the other side of the world, what does that tell you about production time and freight? I just read this article, which is a personal account of an ex-worker at the pseudonymous "Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide" (which I take to be a company the size of an Amazon or an Ebay.) She writes of the degrading ways that workers at warehouses of goods sold online were treated during her employment there (undertaken as a means to gather information to write this story.) She writes of the conditions in which they worked- eight or ten hour days standing on concrete or walking on metal stairs, yelled at, pushed beyond their capabilities and threatened, always threatened with being fired if they failed to meet their ever-increasing targets. That is not to say that every online business treats its employees this way, of course- there are small businesses, ethical businesses operating online who care deeply about their staff. I imagine such conditions would be more endemic in larger companies- but as the writer outlines in her account, such working conditions are not limited to just one (i.e. the one where she worked for this story) but are common practice. It is a corporate culture of treating employees like cogs in a machine, working them long hours for minimum wage, holding their job security over them at the slightest misdemeanour (such as bursting into tears or being one minute late to your twelve and a half hour shift): "we don't want to be so intense... but our customers demand it." That's you and me. Are our expectations as consumers contributing to this toxic culture? Yes, of course. So what do we do with that?

Questions like what kinds of people are driven to take jobs like these also come into play- I would suggest it's not people who have had the opportunity to go to and stay in school, or who would have the means to choose an alternative who sign up for a warehouse job like the one described in the article. The fact that prospective employees get asked numerous times in different ways if they have ever been to prison seems to confirm this impression. 

Questions like what toll online shopping is taking on the environment come to mind; all of this transportation of goods between manufacturers and processing stations, foreign post offices and our homes by freight trains, container ships, aeroplanes... you don't see any of that when a postie hands you your parcel.

Questions like what toll it is demanding of us, being encouraged in this manner of thinking that we are entitled to buy whatever we want when we want. What about your needs? Not 'I need these Proenza boots that aren't sold in Australia!' but 'do I need boots? Do I actually need them?' Most of us have the luxury to not to have to consider this so much any more-  we don't have to buy for need, and often don't. We have the luxury to buy for pleasure. And it may not necessarily be a pair of expensive boots that at stake but books, furniture, organic produce, stuff for our bikes- whatever it is you buy online. Can you get it locally? Do you need it? Is it worth it? And aren't there more factors to consider in your decision than what is the cheapest and easiest alternative for you? 

Which is to make no mention at all of the experience of shopping, of browsing on your own two feet. That experience of sociality, curiosity, engagement, that being in the world- well, I think it's irreplaceable. 

I'm not wanting to be on my soapbox about this, I just have been pondering it lately. The way that online shopping has been embraced in Australia has been so wholehearted yet it's profoundly affecting our local retail economy. It's also affecting the people we're indirectly employing in sub-standard conditions (question: is it better to have a job or to be unemployed if your job is exploitative and dehumanising? I really don't know), it's affecting our environment and it's affecting the way we think about ourselves in relation to others. I don't have an answer to this at the moment, I just felt like firing off some of these questions. Let me know what you think, if you have thoughts about this too.


  1. I always have to ask myself whether I really 'need' something. I'm currently sitting on 5 items in an online shopping basket, just as I have been for the past 2 weeks, asking myself over-and-over: are these things that I really need? But...I know I want them.

  2. Very interesting discussion topic. I must say that I have never bought clothes online, however I have very little sympathy with retail stores. I find customer service poor, shops messy, boring clothing - which I know is more 'on trend' overseas. I think a lot of retails problems come from poor product purchasing. So, I pretty much refuse to buy clothes or seek out local, upcoming labels. Perhaps that will be a sustainable growth area.

  3. Melissa 1: I always have full online shopping baskets- I get so caught up in the desire that I have to hold back and try to imagine actually wearing what I'm getting. Wanting things is not necessarily "bad"- I was just thinking that there's more at stake in that decision than just what we want. Like I said, I don't have an easy answer but I guess it's interesting to consider...

    Melissa 2: Your experience with retail sounds really disappointing, I'm sorry to hear that! I have a number of stores I like to visit for good service in Sydney- and by the same token, some that I will never, ever go into again because of feeling about two centimetres tall by the time I left last time. If you can find a few stores that you like- their clothing, their staff, their vibe- I reckon stick with them. Most stores will want to get to know their loyal customers and do what they can to help them- it's in both your interests, I guess, and it makes the whole experience more pleasant for everyone. Local designer markets, local weekend markets and little boutiques often seem to have better quality and better service, I find, but their accessibility for you depends on where you live...

  4. I love stuff! I adore stuff! The more toll on the environment and people involved the more I revel in the stuff! I own a gorgeous gold ring and sometimes I love to think about how much earth was displaced and torn up just to make this almost entirely useless decorative object. There is definitely a part of me that is fascinated by the amount of human and environmental destruction and suffering that can be built into an object. I would go so far as to say that it can bring a smile to my face. I wouldn't go so far as to say it brings me actual pleasure. But then...stick me in a swag for weeks on end in the middle of nowehere, without proper showers or toilets, a few changes of clothes, no make-up, no perfumes, no shopping beyond things like water and food...and I'm also supremely happy. I know I can live with so much less than what I have and buy, but I don't really want to.

    We have the luxury of buying for pleasure, yes. Many of us also have the luxury of ignoring the toll it may take on our society and environment, since the effects are rarely felt directly or immediately.

    In my sustainability class I had many unpopular opinions. While the teacher was looking toward a future of sustainable local products, I was pointing out that if such a future business model ever becomes the majority, then you're increasing the selling point for luxury items (such as, say, flying an Alaskan king crab halfway around the world on a private charter jet solely for the purpose of using the shell as a decoration for another dish) regardless of how obscene it may appear to others. When I suggested such a venture might be very profitable in the right place at the right time, she suggested I might be considered morally bankrupt.

    Er...I've forgotten where I was going with this. I suppose, basically, it depends on how much an individual cares about the hidden costs of what they're doing?

  5. Wow, what a reply. I'm fascinated. Good on you for sticking to your guns and not agreeing with everyone else in that classroom. I agree with where you ended- it depends on how much individuals care about hidden costs. I don't know if sustainability will ever be embraced by a majority but if it was you're absolutely right- luxury would go through the roof. More pressing for me is the human strain- the way people are treated as labour units and not people, the way we ourselves as consumers are blurring with the products we buy and consumption is so ingrained in our way of live that we hardly even think about it anymore. Both of these are hugely problematic to me. We do have the luxury not to think of it; but I guess not thinking about it does not satisfy me.

  6. Interesting post. I had a link to some free samples from Bare Escentuals just $1 for shipping earlier today. I put it all in my cart, then decided against it because I don’t really need more makeup and didn’t want to get the stuff then throw the mailer away and all the little tiny containers that samples always come in. I didn’t think much about the human labor side of online shopping but thats probably more important than the environmental factor haha. That article was kind of crazy to read, I didn't realize that the packing work is probably all sourced to companies like this.

  7. A thought-provoking article, Rosie! I too read that article on working conditions in large shipping factories and it made me think thrice before pressing 'place order' yesterday - I literally thought it was machines retrieving my CDS, books, shoes??? Ignorance can be bliss.

    Definitely agree with your points about the difference between 'want' and 'need', and seeking objects of desire that have caused the least harm to our fellow humans and planet. However when I thought about my latest online purchase - a winter coat bought in the end-of-winter American sales - I don't actually believe that buying a similar coat in a local shopping centre at four times the price would be a more ethical purchase as I am pretty sure they all come from China anyhow. Perhaps if local retailers made their sustainability/human rights policies more transparent it would sway my allegiance from my usual bargain-hunting ways - until then I feel most at peace about not buying much/spending the least money possible without resorting to sweatshop tat - freeing more of my resources to be not spent on myself.

  8. That's a really good point Megan! Goods bought locally but still made in sweatshops- terrible. More transparency would be a brilliant development- some kind of a regulated industry standard that indicates a good was made in fair and free circumstances for the people involved in its production... I like your last point- spending as little as possible on yourself whilst still avoiding sweatshop-produced goods to save your resources to spend not on yourself. Did you have to do a bit of research to establish where you could shop that would be sweatshop free?

    Thanks Alice! I agree- the human factor is more worrying to me too!

  9. I've found that brands that have invested in ensuring their goods are sustainable and human-friendly tend to make a big deal of it on their websites - Gorman, Bassike, skin and threads, Metalicus, Cue - even Kathmandu and Bardot, at the opposite end of the fashion spectrum! Accredited Australian brands are also listed on

  10. Megan, that's so great to learn! Thank you! Tweeting accordingly...