Personal Income

The supply chain crisis should change our holiday shopping habits


I started getting emails from brands in September, hinting that I should get a head start on my holiday shopping. Next came the headlines, and then the reminders from social media users dishing out the same advice. Holiday shopping starts a little earlier every year, but this isn’t just the typical push. People are encouraged to order their gifts as soon as possible or risk having packages arrive late, due to rampant supply chain disruptions and mailing delays. Even books (yes, books!) aren’t safe from the impending shortages.

The holiday shopping industrial complex feels especially unavoidable in 2021, with Halloween still more than a week away. Amazon, Macy’s, Target, and Walmart have launched early-bird sales, and retailers are preparing to dish out millions of dollars on ads for strong fourth-quarter sales.

The pandemic briefly curbed consumer spending, but not for very long: As the country opened back up, Americans felt the urge to get out and shop, an impulse that retailers and marketers happily indulged. The early fall holiday shopping schedule is billed to benefit customers by reducing their annual holiday stress, which will likely be compounded by supply chain delays. But when the early bird catches the worm (and the sales), the retailers rake in all the profits.

Early holiday shopping sprees are good news for retail corporations, logistics companies, and the US economy, but bad, ultimately, for millions of workers (manufacturing, retail, logistics, warehouse) and the planet. Instead of opting to order our Christmas presents early, perhaps now is the time to reconsider America’s great shopping addiction.

When the stuff we want is so hard to get ahold of, why go to such great lengths to buy it? Consumers have the option to not order items manufactured overseas, to source things locally from small businesses or artisans. We also have a choice that eliminates the potential for shipping or supply chain mishaps: We can just buy less.

We know that our collective consumption of consumer goods, from the creation of plastic toys to the fossil fuels that ship them to our homes, isn’t good for the environment. Yes, on a consumer level, our ability to control resource consumption is minimal, but that doesn’t mean there’s no good in a holiday season where gift exchanges don’t require an Amazon Prime account or transit via multiple shipping containers. Mindfulness has its own benefits, especially for affluent consumers, which includes America’s upper-middle class. The higher-income consumers among us use far more resources than the less well-off and are responsible for influencing shopping norms at large.

Americans are now more aware than ever of the global supply chain and its vulnerability to unexpected snarls (like the Suez Canal blockage), raw-material shortages, and shipping delays. Experts predict that these problems, set off by the pandemic, won’t let up until 2022 or 2023. To help reduce supply chain backlogs, the Biden administration has ordered major ports and shipping companies, including Walmart, UPS, and FedEx, to increase their working hours. These domestic efforts, while heartening for consumers, are unlikely to assuage existing supply and demand issues across the world.

Meanwhile, the growing severity of climate disasters threatens to impact how we produce, source, and ship these goods, raw materials, and the food we eat. Product shortages and delays, it seems, are the new normal. At the end of this logistic maze is the shopper, whose buying tendencies are cultivated and incentivized from a young age. The entire consumer enterprise could be summed up in one Ariana Grande lyric: “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.”

If these supply chain problems are expected to persist, however, we must be prepared to curb our shopping habits. Conscious or decreased consumption might not move the needle much on climate change or improve the exploitative working conditions faced by those who produce and ship our goods, but that doesn’t mean we have to be trapped in a cycle of thoughtless buying. The alternative isn’t a moral neutral. Must we continue to drown in our unlimited and unfettered need for more stuff, or could we start buying less?

In his book The Uninhabitable Earth, journalist David Wallace-Wells wrote that “there is something of a moral crime in how much you and I and everyone we know consume, given how little is available to consume for so many other people on the planet.”

Shopping, by this logic, is a sin, one that Americans can’t live without. Well-intentioned consumers have tried to do the next-best thing: Shop sustainably. But sustainable shopping is still … shopping. It’s an oxymoronic act that makes us feel good about the things we buy. True sustainability requires reducing our consumption (and, likely, the country’s economic growth), not through buying “greener” products.

“In an exploitative consumer market, the answer is not buying more. It’s buying less,” argues fashion journalist and activist Aja Barber. “We can’t buy our way to an ethical world.”

Still, most consumers are swayed by the hope of “voting with one’s wallet.” Shopping and boycotting became a means to perform politics in the Trump era and beyond. But consumer activism, or conscious consumerism, does little to impact legislation or corporate policy. The fossil fuel industries, to that end, have weaponized the fallacy of “personal responsibility” to avoid talking about corporate carbon emissions. (An infuriating, oft-repeated statistic from the Carbon Majors Database is that 100 major fossil fuel companies have produced 71 percent of total carbon emissions since 1988.)

As born consumers, we’re faced with a tricky, paralyzing conundrum: Any collective effort will be futile against the scale of climate change, so why should regular people be tasked with modifying their behaviors when the system that runs global commerce is so ubiquitous?

According to one sustainability researcher, intent matters. Making the active choice to think twice before we buy could improve both our happiness and quality of life. It could help shape social norms and influence others toward more-sustainable choices.

Daniel Fischer, an assistant professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, wants to reframe the conversation around sustainable living. People, he told me, often assume they’re adopting a lower quality of life by owning and buying less. “We need to flip this narrative around and emphasize how sustainability allows you to have a better quality of life,” Fischer said. “It’s not about renunciation, but choice.”



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