SINGAPORE: Retail therapy. Two words that for the vast majority of us sum up the excitement and anticipation of walking through store aisles or scrolling through shopping apps and finding exhilaration in adding items to our cart and coming away pleased with our purchases.
But these two words may as well be synonymous with ‘climate crisis’, judging by the harm we cause our planet via our seemingly innocent ‘fingertip’ shopping expenditures.
The feel-good factor that many of us seek through shopping, perpetuating the buy-use-discard cycle is anything but therapeutic to planet earth and all its inhabitants, given the immense packaging waste and carbon footprint it leaves behind.
The e-commerce sector has burgeoned in recent years. Targeted online sales events have further catapulted the retail culture to dizzying heights.
Singles’ Day 2020 is today, a much-anticipated global shopping event.
I wonder if the Nanjing University students in 1993 who started this ever imagined their lightbulb moment of using retail therapy as a way to cheer themselves up for being single – indeed to flaunt their singlehood with pride - would gain popularity of such monumental proportions.
CEO of Alibaba Group, Daniel Zhang cashed in on this feel-good concept in 2009 and its popularity has made such headway into our societies that, today, it is no longer associated with one’s social life status to shop extensively on Singles’ Day. Everyone does it.
The returns on this investment has been nothing short of staggering. 2019 Singles’ Day sales on Alibaba raked in a record US$38 billion, over five times the total online sales that from the great Black Friday sales, making it look like a neighbourhood pasar malam in comparison.
Closer to home, Alibaba-owned Lazada recorded 3 million orders within the first 60 minutes last year.
Home-grown e-commerce platform Shopee also saw its biggest 11.11 event with a record-breaking 70 million items sold across the region.
11.11 spinoffs in the form of 9.9 and 10.10 sales are making traction too, further cementing such sale events’ long-term trend.
According to a report tracking online spending, Singaporeans spent an average of more than US$1,000 each on online purchases in 2018, well ahead of the global average of US$634.
COVID-19 THE GATEWAY TO ONLINE SHOPPING
With different parts of the globe in various stages of an “on and off” lockdown this year, e-commerce has gained traction even amongst people who otherwise preferred brick and mortar stores.
My foray into online grocery shopping started during the circuit breaker period. I had previously shied away from it because it doesn’t allow me to carry my own reusable bags or to pick items with low to minimal packaging.
But safety triumphed plastic pollution and I joined the game. Starting with groceries, then printer cartridges, followed by a desk laptop table (cue work from home supplies) and I began to see why this game was fun.
The ease and comfort it presented came close on the heels of the protection it offered from the worry of catching germs.
ONLINE SHOPPING: BOON AND BANE
E-commerce has obvious benefits. At the outset it eliminates geographical limitations and our commute time, offer convenient return and refund policies, often have better deals than retail stores and provides a smorgasbord of products from which to make our purchases 24 hours a day.
We became so immersed and enthralled with this new avenue of shopping that until recently, we failed to notice the gigantic piles of trash the ecommerce trades had left in their wake.
The rise in online sales has resulted in an identical rise in packaging waste. According to Greenpeace, the volume of packaging waste generated in China alone was estimated to be at 9.4 million tonnes in 2018 and is projected to reach 41.3 million tonnes by 2025.
We may not see it but while the trade is virtual, the waste it generates is very much physical.
While shopping online, I noticed from the reviews that Singaporeans may be oblivious to the over-packaging issue.
In fact, many buyers expressed their approval and glee for an item packaged well. A few even complimented sellers on the usage of foam and bubble wraps.
Negative and angry feedback rained on sellers who had seemingly delivered a broken or cracked item. With 25 per cent of items bought online getting returned, and 80 per cent of these stemming from damaged or broken goods, it’s understandable that retailers prefer ‘over wrapping’ items to prevent product injuries and bad reviews.
STEPPING UP EFFORTS TO TACKLE PLASTIC WASTE
The question is how can we have our cake and eat it too?
The e-commerce giants have to take a lead in this and many are already on this path.
Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging is one example. It is based on a tiered certification system and involves working with manufacturers to minimise packaging.
For instance, instead of having 13 packaging components, a product can be packed into nine.
It also has a guideline system to decide how much packaging is needed based on what sort of material the products are made of – so anything deemed more than 50 per cent fragile will have more packaging.
This effectively encourages retailers to pack their goods efficiently and not use a one size fits all method.
Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics venture employs a smart packaging algorithm, which assesses purchased items by category, volume, weight and area, and then proceeds to match the goods to the most space-efficient form of packaging.
This has helped them to improve packaging efficiency for about 290 million packages each year and reduces the waste stemming from over-packaging by 15 per cent.
REUSABLE, RENEWABLE AND RETURNABLE
Innovative and technological advancements can effectively address the waste issue by designing systems and materials based on a 3Rs packaging criteria: Reusable. Renewable. Returnable.
Provisions should be made for the placement of receptacles that can be used by customers to drop their packaging discard, which the final mile logistics ‘bridgers’ can funnel back into the system to be re-employed and re-used for packing other products.
We also need innovations like the renewable mushroom packaging to become mainstream enough to phase out their foam counterparts.
This compostable packaging material is made of fungus roots and farming residues. It has a natural composite material comparable to synthetic foam plastics like styrofoam.
Companies like Returnity allow for packaging boxes that can be returned to the retailer so that the same boxes can continue to deliver more joy to other e-shoppers.
At a consumer level, one can employ a 24-hour Sit-On-It rule to resist impulse purchases. This “cooling off period” may cast a spotlight on whether you’re being led by a practical ‘need-based’ purchase or a more frivolous ‘want-based’ one.
These 24 hours can give us some perspective and nudge us towards a decision that maybe both a wallet and an environment friendly one.
Avoiding express deliveries and engaging in group buys are also responsible habits one can adopt to reduce packaging and carbon emissions.
Shoppers should also feedback to the ecommerce platform and the sellers if they think their purchases are over-wrapped and commend them if they used minimal packaging.
INDIVIDUAL ACTION CAN HELP MOVE THE NEEDLE
Online shopping in Singapore is all set to boom, growing over eight per cent annually, more than twice the three per cent growth for total consumer spending. The pandemic is only accelerating this expansion.
Government regulation and business processes are paramount in effecting timely change.
Robust ecommerce laws and guidelines are urgently needed to stem packaging waste and help pockets of innovative ideas become mainstream.
But society has a role too. We have to start by looking at our own consumption.
One could argue that our myopic materialism has become so entrenched that our temporary joys have taken precedence over the impact our purchase decisions have on our environment.
To combat this, we need to think of designing a circular and closed loop system for dealing with waste generated by the e-commerce industry.
Retail therapy works. Nobody can deny the science behind it. But such joys are by very nature, short-lived, being at their core, a mere distraction and motivation tool.
Slow down. Unwind. Walk barefoot on grass. Volunteer. Make friends. Single or not, let us as a society opt for therapies that are sustainable too.
Aarti Giri is founder of the local environmental group, Plastic-Lite Singapore that encourages reduced dependence on plastics and advocates the adoption of an environmentally conscious lifestyle with lower consumption trends.