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Real talk: Is it okay to shop online during a pandemic?

Real talk: Is it okay to shop online during a pandemic?

To buy or not to buy

Text: Joan Kong


It’s the moral question we’ve been thinking of as of late

It’s day who-is-even-counting-anymore of MCO; if you’ve been feeling super tempted to shop your way out of boredom (or if your purchases are already making their way to your home), I feel you, and I don’t blame you. I’m sure we’ve all been receiving a flurry of sales notifications—“Get up to 50% off on fresh looks!”; “Best-sellers at further reductions!”; “Take an additional 30% off!”—but all I’ve done so far is “window shop” or add the items to my wish list.

What hindered me from hitting the ‘add to cart’ and ‘checkout’ buttons, is the big moral dilemma surrounding it. Many people have been raising questions about shopping for non-essential items online. Is it ethical to shop during a pandemic while some people are sick and dying? Is it ethical to buy the latest fashion items while some people are struggling to put food on the table? Is it ethical to indulge in retail therapy while our healthcare frontliners are battling hard against COVID-19?

The effect on fashion brands

First, let’s talk about data. As most countries are on quarantine or lockdown mode, online shopping has seen an astounding surge the past few months. Food marketing and sales consulting firm Brick Meets Click found that the number of households that are now ordering groceries online has surged 145.3% compared to August last year. But for fashion, it’s the opposite. According to tech-enabled fulfillment service, ShipBob, there’s an overall 20% decrease in sales when it comes to online apparels month-over-month. And the data from e-commerce software firm Channel Advisor states that since the start of 2020, apparel's online sales growth has dropped to zero from a growth rate of about 30% compared to the previous quarter.

Although luxury brands’ online sales only make up 12% of the global revenue, seeing how most of their stores are temporarily shut down at the moment, the decline in e-commerce sale is, undoubtedly, hitting them harder. At this time when Spring/Summer 2020 collections should be all the rage now, many items will miss its critical selling time. And what happens when it’s past its prime? Retailers will have to resort to discounts—hence the flurry of emails in your inbox right now—which is not good news for the economy.

McKinsey and Business of Fashion’s joint report on how coronavirus will affect the fashion industry states that “companies will turn to steep discounting to clear inventory for the rest of the year at a minimum, with a risk that ‘the contagion of deep discounting could spread as quickly as the disease’ throughout the industry, reminiscent of the discounting culture that took hold during the 2008 financial crisis and has dogged the industry ever since.” Customers will hesitate to buy anything at full price anymore, which means margins will be squeezed, and eventually, off-price will cannibalise full-price sales.

Is it safe to shop online?

Before we dive into the ethics, let’s address the safety concerns. When it comes to receiving packages, a research paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the CoV-2 virus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, and 72 hours on plastic packages, but on textiles such as clothing, it’s currently still unknown. But seeing how most orders usually take longer than that to arrive, and the amount of virus decreases on both surfaces from the initial time of contamination, the risk of infection is very low.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also addressed the concern on its website, saying: “The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.” To be safe, it’s best to sanitise your packages and wash your clothes once you receive them. And please remember to not touch your face and wash your hands during and after!

Is it ethical and justifiable to shop online?

Now, the moral dilemma. Aside from the questions which I mentioned at the start, there are also arguments surrounding the safety and health needs of the workers who are fulfilling the orders, from those who work in the warehouses to the ones delivering our packages. Hence, limiting ourselves to ordering necessities only seems like the right choice. I can see how spending on fashion can seem frivolous in the current pandemic, but let’s not forget that the industry plays a crucial part in the global economy.

While big retailers may not face the same existential threat as the SMEs, they have thousands of employees under them, and workers along the supply chain (people who work in textile mills, garment factories and more) who will be affected too. But the ones who need all the help they can get at the moment, are the smaller labels and emerging fashion designers who may not have the financial backing to make it through the crisis.

In a New York Times article, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman wrote, “When you see ’25 percent off,” instead of seeing ‘DEAL’, you should actually see ‘WARNING’ and also ‘HELP’.” Their online business is what’s keeping them afloat now, and they're depending on us to get through this chapter. So, it's important to be smart and mindful about how—and where—you spend your money.

Buying directly from a designer means the profit goes directly to them and their employees, and your support can help save this generation of up-and-coming labels. If they do not have an e-shop, drop them a message on social media or email them to inquire. If you can afford it, ditch the promo code. At this point when we don’t know when—or if—things are not going back to “normal” anytime soon, if you have the means, now is the time to support the brands you care about, but make sure to also think about the impact of your consumption habits.

Acts of kindness in this difficult time is more important than ever, and I believe that fashion has a place in that too.

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