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Reckoning with my online shopping guilt

How to navigate the psychological discomfort that comes with express shipping.
Online shopping created a shocking amount of waste during the pandemic. One recycling center told TODAY it saw a 20% increase in cardboard boxes and a 15% increase in plastic packaging.
Online shopping created a shocking amount of waste during the pandemic. One recycling center told TODAY it saw a 20% increase in cardboard boxes and a 15% increase in plastic packaging.Lisk Feng for TODAY
/ Source: TMRW

A couple years ago, plagued by the creeping guilt I felt ordering package after package online, knowing deep down that half the haul would be sent right back, off to the mysterious abyss that is the returns warehouse, I made a vow to cut down on online shopping.

Then, I had a baby. In the blur of new motherhood, I was too exhausted to schlep to the store and lug diapers and wipes up the stairs to my apartment. I watched brown boxes stack up in my building's lobby and tried to ignore the pit growing in my stomach, vague ideas of cardboard waste and shipping emissions swirling in my mind.

When the pandemic hit, shopping in person was not only less convenient, but a bona fide health threat. More brown boxes. More creeping guilt.

I'm not alone — e-commerce sales skyrocketed at the beginning of the pandemic. Online sales grew more than 31% in just three months. That, of course, created more waste. One recycling facility told TODAY it saw a 20% increase in cardboard boxes and a 15% increase in plastic packaging during the pandemic. On social media and over group texts, people expressed their shame over buying another pair of cheap work-from-home leggings made overseas or unnecessary kitchen gadgets that would inevitably come to live in the back of a cabinet, fuzzed with dust.

So what's the problem with a few more packages in the lobby or plopped onto our doorsteps? After all, shopping online isn't inherently bad — in some cases, it can even have a smaller carbon footprint than shopping in person. But there can be serious downsides. It's not e-commerce itself that's problematic; it's the overuse of express shipping, explained Shyla Raghav, climate change lead for Conservation International.

"When you select a faster shipping speed, it means that you don't have the time to wait for items to be grouped together and shipped in one box," Raghav told TMRW. "They're usually shipped from different warehouses, which increases the environmental footprint. Sometimes trucks are going empty. Or you'll see a lot of packaging for just one item. So it's not just the emissions of transporting an item to the warehouse and then to your doorstep; it's also the emissions required to develop that packaging and then recycle it."

Aside from the recent uptick in volume, the problem with fast shipping isn't new. So given this knowledge, why do we — why do I — keep on buying? Is it carelessness? Laziness? Maybe. But it’s also more complicated than that.

“We’re social creatures,” said Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist in Oxford, England, and the creator of Climate Psychologists, an organization that provides climate mental well-being support. “We like to think of ourselves as being autonomous decision-makers, but actually we’re hugely influenced by people around us."

Online shopping "has become so normalized, so much a part of our culture," he added.

Plus, he pointed out, it’s simply human nature to occasionally do things that we know are wrong — think of smoking or eating too much cheesecake. There’s an even a term to describe the psychological stress that occurs as a result: cognitive dissonance.

“That’s where my behavior contradicts my values, my beliefs,” Kennedy-Williams said. “The dissonance is the distance between what I’ve done and what I believe I should do. And this is where guilt comes from, because it creates this dissonance.”

Many found this dissonance was nearly unavoidable during the pandemic. And while Amazon is hardly the only online retailer in the game, many felt a particular pain giving in to its speedy shipping last year, especially when FedEx, UPS and USPS were struggling with delays. (While Amazon works with those mail carriers, it also delivers many of its own packages.) To further complicate feelings, Amazon has come under fire for alleged poor workplace conditions and recent accusations of anti-union efforts.

"If there was a better alternative, we would have used it, but there wasn't."

Brandon Plunkett, dad of six

A few weeks before most people learned about the severity of COVID-19, Brandon Plunkett wrote on LinkedIn that he was feeling bad about ordering items on Amazon. He and his family decided to boycott the company and shop local businesses instead. Then, the pandemic happened.

"We held out until Christmas," he told TMRW. "But we have six kids. My partner and I looked at each other and we're like, 'How are we possibly going to shop for six kids?' If there was a better alternative, we would have used it, but there wasn't."

Plunkett, who lives in the Vancouver area, has tried to find ways to assuage his guilt. His family still buys things online, but they try to consolidate purchases and order in bulk, and only turn to online ordering for necessities — needs, not wants.

Denene McBride of Bella Vista, Arkansas, has discovered that composting the cardboard packaging from her online purchases makes her feel a little better.

"During the worst of the pandemic, shopping was not possible because of the risk," she told TMRW. "But like everyone, there was stuff I needed. So I used Amazon, a lot. We have a community AARP recycling center, but that's also a drive. So I compost the boxes without coating for use in the yard, and the coated stuff goes to the center. I cut the cardboard up with a serrated knife. Worms love it."

To curb the express-shipping problem, some companies, including Amazon, allow customers to choose a slower, greener shipping speed at checkout. But it can be a hard sell, since many of us are already hooked on getting our items quickly. Plenty of major retailers now offer free two-day shipping, including Target, Walmart and Home Depot. Corporations have trained everyday customers to expect speedy shipping, even for insignificant purchases. (Think about that the next time you rush ship a $4 hairbrush.)

It wasn't always like this, though. The proliferation of free express shipping without stipulations is relatively recent. Amazon Prime dropped its $35 order minimum for one-day delivery in 2019 — Walmart followed suit shortly after.

"(Years ago), we were perfectly fine waiting three days for something," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor for the NPD Group. "If I wanted something and didn't want to pick it up or a store didn't have it, it was OK waiting for a few days. But now everything has to come today or tomorrow."

The way we approach shopping overall has changed, he said.

"Think of how you used to shop as a fashion customer," Cohen said. "You used to think about the season in advance. You would start thinking about spring and summer in February, March. We don’t buy a month in advance. We don’t even buy a week in advance. We live in the here and now. Our focus is, what do we need now? What do we need today or tomorrow? And if I can’t get it by tomorrow, that’s not good enough or fast enough."

We live in a convenience culture, and it's hard to reverse that. In lieu of completely abandoning mega corporations and buying everything locally — certainly a small number of people have bravely attempted to do just that — it sometimes feels as though the only solution is simply to live with it: the guilt, the remorse, the excess. Of course, it’s not. Those feelings can even serve as a tool to be better.

"We don’t buy a month in advance. We don’t even buy a week in advance. We live in the here and now."

Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor for the NPD Group

“Guilt is there to show us those times we’re doing something that clashes with our values,” Kennedy-Williams said. “Too much guilt is unhelpful — we don’t want to be overly punishing ourselves for things. But it’s helpful to reframe guilt a little sometimes.”

As with anything, mindfulness appears to be the key here. Raghav, the climate expert, is a big fan of minimalism: only buying what you truly need and giving each purchase considerable thought, so doing away with shopping for the sake of shopping and minimizing returns. Kennedy-Williams suggests people focus on “small wins” when it comes to consumer behavior and remember that "an imperfect change is better than no change at all."

While writing this article, I took a break to browse online for running sneakers I’m not entirely sure I need. I added three pairs to my shopping basket, felt ridiculous, took a moment and clicked “save for later.” Later, which may mean when my cart fills up enough for my conscience to allow a shipment. Or, perhaps … never.

Are you also struggling with online shopping guilt? Here are a few ways to reduce packaging waste.

4 tips to reduce waste from shopping online

Buy less

This is the minimalist method. Take time to think about why you're buying something and only make the purchase if it's necessary.

Cut down on excess packaging

Look for "frustration-free packaging" options at checkout. And be mindful in your own packaging of using boxes when you could use envelopes, for example.

Request items be shipped together

Ask about or look for options to ship multiple items together, even if it means you'll have to wait longer to receive your purchases. Some companies even offer discounts if you do this!

Shop from companies that use recyclable materials

Do your research about where you're shopping. And if a place you love doesn't have great packaging or recycling policies, don't be afraid to speak up!