Fashademic: The (great) online shopping disconnect

In conversation with an acquaintance recently, 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 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 – but 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 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 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, and if you have thoughts about this too.

Rosie Findlay is a PhD candidate (and all around fashion nerd) at the University of Sydney, writing her thesis on personal style blogs. She blogs at Fashademic (http://fashademic.blogspot.com) and has a tendency to get breathless at the sight of a pair of dropcrotch trousers. Please don't hold that against her; she's really very nice. 

When she is not writing articles and setting off on research trips, Rosie will be sharing her insights from the world of fashademia with this here occasional column procured from her enchanting online collection of thoughts. To catch up on your Fashademic studies, Rosie has compiled a list of top stories from the past year, which you can access here.


Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Perhaps clothing should come with labels like food, only instead of nutritional panels, the labels should detail where they were made, etc. That way consumers can make informed decisions? Or, we should simply support those brands/labels who endeavour to do this without regulation... who are very transparent about where/why they get their clothes made, where the fabric is sourced from, who benefits, the carbon imprint, etc (ie sustainable, ethical, eco-friendly)? In fact, don't those brands who sell themselves on ethical practises have more cred anyway? Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta and TOMS come to mind. Erica

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