Consumers add environmental devastation to their shopping carts

For more than 40 years, the share of consumer spending on experiences and events has increased by 70%. Millennials have been at the forefront of preferencing experiences over material goods. According to a study conducted by the Harris Group in 2014, 72% of millennials aligned with this trend. The study found that a “fear of missing out,” particularly enhanced by social media, had driven consumers to direct their spending towards Instagram-worthy experiences. With the onset of COVID-19, however, this long term trend has been upended, with dramatic consequences for the environment.
With access to experiences limited under lockdowns, spending on tangible goods has sharply risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID-19 is acting as a demand shock and is temporarily inverting this trend that was on the rise,” said Enver Casimir, Urban history and economics teacher.
A survey of 30 Urban students conducted by the Urban Legend found that 43.3% of students are buying more items, with only 20% reporting their consumption habits staying the same as before the Pandemic.
Urban students are not alone in purchasing more material goods during this time. According to the NPD Group, during the first six months of 2020, children’s toy sales alone increased by 16%, compared with last year. During the 2020 holiday season, retailers are expected to exceed previous sales records, with 40% of consumers indicating that “as a result of COVID-19, they will buy more gifts to bring joy during challenging times” in NPD’s annual holiday purchase intentions study.
Despite widespread closures of physical retail spaces during the pandemic, online retailers have made shopping readily accessible, filling consumer demand. A 30-person survey conducted by the Urban Legend found that Urban students are following this national trend towards online shopping, with 80% of Urban students reporting shopping online. This is in contrast to only 20% reporting to have continued to shop in-person at stores. According to Forbes, online sales have mainly been concentrated in specific areas, with home furnishings growing 16%, fashion up 19%, electronics rising 20%, and health and beauty sales up 23%.
Additionally, more lenient return policies have heightened the appeal of ordering goods from the luxury of one’s home. The Guardian reported that American consumers are more than twice as likely to return items bought online than in-store. With many online retailers advertising free or discounted returns, UPS has forecasted record-breaking holiday returns with 1.6 million packaging returns expected per day the week before Christmas.
Though many consumers assume that their returned items find their way back onto the shelf, that is often not the case. Annually, five billion pounds of returned goods end up in US landfills, according to Optoro, a company that services retailers processing returns. In hopes of minimizing their carbon footprint, some countries, including France, have begun banning the destruction of unsold consumer products earlier this year.
In comparison to the one-step process of returning items to stores in person, the environmental impact of returning an item bought online is multifaceted, often involving the transportation of the item to a mailing site, distribution center, and finally, its company of origin. According to an interview Miguel Jaller, co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Center at the University of California Davis, gave to The Guardian, 20-25% of the environmental impact of e-retailers is due to returns.
Items shipped and delivered directly to consumers’ doorsteps are often wrapped in large amounts of disposable packaging as well. In a recent report, Oceana found that Amazon generated 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2019 alone, equivalent to the mass of more than 116,250 cars. Thin plastic film, most commonly used in Amazon packaging, has a recycling rate of only 4%, despite the company’s claims of recyclability.
While the environmental effects of changing consumer habits during the pandemic will have lasting consequences, “the other question is whether or not COVID is going to have a permanent impact on behaviors,” said Casimir. “There’s a possibility that COVID just sets a trend that develops its own inertia.”