At the beginning of the first lockdown, our Instagram feeds were graced with stories of dolphins returning to Venetian canals. The narrative went that fewer people travelling allowed the waterways a break from pollution, and Mother Nature could reclaim what humanity had seized from her.
We retreated into our comfy clothes, content with the thought that our isolation was creating some good out of the bad. But though stories like this offered some respite from the daunting weeks of lockdown, they were completely false.
Bored and restless at home, we began to engage in behaviours that were much more destructive to our environment than dropping litter into a Venetian canal could ever be.
Online shopping has been a consumerist revolution. Its massive environmental impact is the last thing on our minds when the convenience of a click seems to eclipse all anxieties.
It’s true, Amazon-ordering and fast fashion did not begin with Covid-19. We’ve been regularly scrolling, clicking, and answering the doorbell for the best part of a decade. However, with the world in lockdown, many of us began to shop online at an alarming rate. Amazon hired 250,000 new couriers and warehouse assistants between July and September 2020, pushing their global workforce past 1 million people. Parcels now make up 60% of Royal Mail’s revenue – up from 47% before the pandemic.
So, what’s wrong with that? Surely saving a trip into town to buy that pair of trainers reduces our carbon emissions?
Unfortunately, online shopping commits greater crimes than simply burning the petrol that powers most vehicles. Our orders come packaged in cardboard, Styrofoam, plastic bags, and bubble wrap (made from our convenient friend, crude oil), which is inevitably binned and dumped in landfill. It then lays there for years, toxifying the earth.
Our desire for dopamine – call it addiction – makes fast fashion irresistible. But as we bulk buy kilo after kilo of clothing with the intention of sending back items which just don’t fit, we forget that 20% of online returns are sent to landfill because the retailer can no longer sell them. That’s not to mention the extra delivery trips to and from the warehouse.
Online ordering is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It appears harmless, but actually does serious damage to our already crippled environment. To combat this, we need to become more self-aware, to resist over-buying.
I may seem cynical, or preachy. But I can’t deny that I have shopped online, fallen for adverts, and smiled when I found a parcel placed neatly at my door (or shoved in a nearby bush) with my prized purchase inside. I’ve then forgotten about that purchase a few weeks later. No one’s infallible.
I also cannot deny that online shopping has been a lifesaver for some people during lockdown. Without supermarkets’ online order systems, many vulnerable people would have struggled to feed themselves during these months.
But as the light at the end of this pandemic-shaped tunnel brightens, what we need to do is shop more consciously. We need to shop local, buy clothes only when necessary, and reduce the amount we return, even when it is more convenient to do otherwise. Covid-19 is just one hurdle we humans will face in the coming decades. In the marathon against climate change, the hurdles are predicted to get bigger and bigger.
Image: Adeline Zhao