A Love Letter To Slower Shopping
One writer explores the reasons to skip the overnight shipping and shop independent stores online.
By Laura Fenton
Earlier this year, I bought my son a toy he’d been admiring for some time from a smaller website–not one of the big online retailers. My kid is familiar with how objects arrive at our home via the internet: He’s seen me order him shoes one day and have them arrive two days later, but this experience of waiting for a longed-for toy was new for him. Each day when I picked him up from aftercare, he would ask if the toy had arrived yet. When it had not, he’d moan in frustration about it being so slow. This went on for what felt like an eternity, but checking back in my email for the order date and delivery confirmation, was only a period of eight days.
It’s not just my seven-year-old son who is an impatient shopper. Somehow we have arrived in a period where we expect our purchases to appear almost instantaneously. (I’m guilty of it myself.) Often called the Prime effect, consumers went from accepting a standard “7 to 10 business days” to receive an order to expecting their purchases to arrive the very next day—at no additional cost!—thanks to the popularity of retailers loyalty programs. But this endless stream of boxes on the doorstep is not a sustainable reality.
The world of fast, overnight shipping is a nightmare for workers, local communities, and our climate. Speedy shipping runs on fossil fuels, the burning of which are bad for our health and the climate. To get your item from point A to point B it’s almost certainly spending time on a truck running on diesel fuel, if not a cargo plane burning jet fuel. With the demand for next-day delivery, it’s harder for companies to be fuel-efficient with their shipping. All that online shopping is also creating an empire of trash. One study estimated that Amazon alone created 465 million pounds of plastic packaging in 2020 (Amazon disputed this number, but even their more conservative estimate of 90,000 tons is an eye-popping amount). It’s not just the biggest online retailers who are to blame: I ordered from a midsize company recently and was horrified when an elephantine box and what seemed like a ream of bubble wrap arrived at my doorstep to deliver a relatively small step ladder.
Then there’s the wasteful return culture that online shopping promotes: Big businesses accept returns for just about anything—and then throw a large percentage of those returned items away. Luxury brands have even gone so far as to purposely damage returned items: Staff are not allowed to buy returns at a discount or give them to charity—they go straight to the landfill to “retain brand value.” Smaller companies are much less likely to engage in this wasteful behavior, and shoppers likely think twice about excess buying and returning when there’s not a fast and free shipping and returns policy to support their behavior.
Super-fast shipping is also a nightmare for workers; so much so that warehouse workers have been striking across the country. Fast shipping doesn’t rely on some cutting-edge technology: It is made possible by squeezing warehouse workers and delivery drivers harder. “You are only able to get all of this happening by pretending that’s not people,” Sarah Jaffe, the author of Work Won’t Love You Back, told Ezra Klein on his podcast. “Pretending that you don’t know that somewhere in that Amazon warehouse somebody is sprinting across [the floor] to get your book and your rubber chicken off the shelf to send it to you in 24 hours. That [work] has to be made invisible. Making it visible again is hard, but it’s what is happening right now.”
Our love of convenience is also bad for our local communities. The money you spend at big online retailers goes to nameless shareholders of a large corporation–not your neighbor or a small business owner in another community. They say the talk about the death of retail is largely overblown, but in my own New York City neighborhood I have watched as mom and pops have closed, and I can't help but wonder if our habit of online shopping is at least partly to blame. When I can, I try to shop locally, but I also try to be conscious when I order online: I rarely order anything from the biggest e-tailers. Yes, the stuffed animal might be cheaper on one of the big sites, but I’d rather spend a couple dollars more and buy it from the delightful indie toy store. I will pay more for shipping and it might not come as fast, but on the plus side, I find that smaller retailers are much less likely to send me excess packaging. When there’s a place to include a note, I’ve even asked to receive upcycled packaging for my purchase and small shop owners have willingly obliged.
Back to my son and his long wait for his toy. I framed his longing as a frustration, but there’s another way to look at it: He was experiencing anticipation. There are lots of studies that show that anticipating something pleasurable is almost as, if not equally as, rewarding as the thing itself. Plus, if my son is an example, the period of anticipation might also make us appreciate the things we buy more: He’s treated that toy like it was precious ever since it (finally!) arrived.
What about you? Do you embrace slower shopping? I’d love to hear how in the comments!