Emerging from the food coma that is Thanksgiving dinner: turkey (well, tofu for me), stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pie, I find myself contemplating the ease with which Israeli society has adopted the post-Thanksgiving shopping binge. Even though only a small fraction of the population ate turkey for dinner tonight, tomorrow is Black Friday everywhere. Or rather, the shopping frenzy has already started; any link between Black Friday and the day after Thanksgiving is long gone. Israelis are certainly embracing the consumer culture of the west with open arms, if not open bellies.
The trend of online shopping has taken off here, just ask at the local post office. Amazon just joined the ranks of international purveyors of everything to offer free or reasonable shipping to Israel. The excitement was almost palpable. You can find Facebook groups to discuss the best deals available and how to navigate the customs guidelines. Disclosure: our first Amazon order on its way.
Online shopping holds great potential and risk. With a few clicks I can easily find what I want, and if the terms and conditions are right, it will arrive at my home in relative ease and economy. However, thanks to algorithms, complementary items and suggestions quickly send us down a rabbit hole. The variety of choice online can be overwhelming and lead us to items we just don’t need.
Part of the shopping experience should be to browse the shelves and racks to find the item — to touch fabrics and try things on for size, to feel the weight of a bowl, or to place items in proximity to each other as we contemplate our purchase. Part of the point of investing time in the shopping trip makes me really consider if my time searching was worth this item in my hands or if should I keep looking.
Online shopping can afford us the opportunity to buy the items we really need (that’s a critical word here, the algorithms are very persuasive). Local stores can stop importing pallets of junky stuff in the hopes that we will buy the items. The world of shopping could shift to individuals importing just what we want. There could be environmental savings with this shift in the import market, except that each private import comes with less efficient packaging and a different shipping model to your doorstep as opposed to a larger delivery to a central location of the store.
The downside is that my online shopping hurts local businesses. These are the places that employ my neighbors and friends and contribute to a sense of community in my town, and in yours, and make my community meaningful for me. The experience of going to a vintage clothing store or a local spice dealer brings with it the incalculable and priceless value of the social interaction. Even if we have to pay a bit more, that interaction is worth something; it may well come with a tidbit of local news you wouldn’t have heard elsewhere. Not to mention the property and sales taxes that contribute to the well-being of our communities.
Speaking of well-being, let’s consider the Happy Planet Index. What if, instead of measuring our success with GDP and endless growth, we consider that the quality of our life depends on multiple factors, including the health of our environment? What if we are striving for well-being (not the same as happiness)? High levels of resource consumption don’t improve our well-being. Well-being is so much more than happiness (which we know can’t be bought anyway) because it considers issues of inequality and environmental resource consumption. Israel ranks 54th out of the 140 countries included in the ranking. Not too bad; we have room to improve.
The loss of small businesses will dramatically change the quality of my life, and not to mention those out of business. It is my responsibility to be a conscientious online shopper. I have to make sure that I consider the environmental and economic impacts of my purchase, in addition to the potential savings of time and money. I have the power to influence with my pocketbook and make informed purchases of high quality, well-priced items, that have a positive affect for everyone in the supply chain.
Furthermore, my impersonal and faceless online purchase is facilitated by actual human beings collecting the items (with the help of robots) into a box, sealing and labeling it, and sending it off to me, thanks to a courier service. There are people involved in the online shopping infrastructure and they deserve recognition and respect and a healthy working environment. Hearing that Amazon workers are reporting significant work-related injuries as they attempt to keep up with the pace of orders is cause to think twice. Is this the kind of consumer I want to be? Is this the kind of company I want to support? How can I do a better job making informed and thoughtful purchases and not be wasteful?
As we careen into this shopping season, both here and back in the US, perhaps we can look more critically at the impact of our online shopping habits and make some adjustments. At the end of the day, there are people involved in all of our purchases, including ourselves.