US Tariffs, Beijing, China - 10 Sep 2018

BEIJING — It’s hailed as the Olympics of shopping, but also called a “disaster for the environment.” With another Singles’ Day gone by in China, this time to the tune of $45 billion — nearly $31 billion from Alibaba alone — questions about online shopping and its fast-expanding environmental burden are growing.

The conversation has taken on a renewed sense of urgency, especially as the ambitions of Chinese companies become more global — this was the first year that non-Chinese arms of Alibaba took part in the sale.

Researchers are unearthing data that indicate their core market, the Chinese consumer, is starting to care, too. According to the China Chain Store Association, more than 70 percent of 9,370 respondents surveyed said they were willing to pay a 10 percent premium for sustainable products that create minimum pollutants and harm to the environment.

The two leading Chinese e-commerce companies, Alibaba and JD.com, have set green goals for 2020. For Cainiao, the logistics arm of Alibaba, that meant unveiling in May a plan to use artificial intelligence algorithms for smart routing in 40,000 villages. The company says this will shorten the average delivery journey by 30 percent in rural areas, while deploying new energy vehicles to 100 cities in China to minimize carbon footprint. Without providing specifics, it pledged to use more recycled packaging.

In October, rival JD unveiled a reusable packaging initiative. Customers in 10 major cities had the chance to select an eco-friendly option during the billing and checkout process. JD’s “green box” can be used about 10 times, also earning the customer JD loyalty points, and is an option for all small and medium-sized parcels. By the end of the year, JD said it will provide the recycled packaging option in 20 cities.

However, while acknowledging these steps, environmentalists also take issue with them. “Pilot projects such as reusable delivery boxes and no-tape containers have been implemented on too small a scale to have a major impact on waste reduction,” Greenpeace said.

That’s because many of the terms used in the conversation, like “environmentally friendly” or “eco,” are ambiguous to begin with. Second, because certain terms — like “biodegradable” and “compostable” — are misused.

Alibaba shows a warehouse facility during their 2018 Singles' Day gala.

Alibaba shows a warehouse facility during their 2018 Singles’ Day gala.  Courtesy

“‘Biodegradable’ refers to an item that ​breaks down or ​decays​ ​naturally​ without any ​special​ ​scientific​ ​treatment​ and can therefore be ​thrown away​ without causing ​pollution​,” Greenpeace said. “Many plastics marked as ‘biodegradable’ are actually ‘compostable,’ meaning that they are designed to break down in controlled composting facilities. PBAT and PLA, plastics used by ​Alibaba ​and JD in delivery, are two examples of ​’compostable’ plastics​.”

Because those plastics used never make it to a facility, the impact is essentially the same as conventional plastics, Greenpeace concluded.

The nonprofit estimated that last year’s Singles’ Day orders on Tmall alone resulted in more than 160,000 tons of packaging waste, and advocates that the best way to reduce impact is to lower the use of plastics and extra packaging in the first place. It points out that original brand packaging usually is sufficient for delivery and even often overpackaged, and does not need to undergo another round of packaging by the e-commerce platform.

“The challenge that I see is that a lot of it is just window-dressing to show that they are green, instead of really attacking the problem,” said Ian Rogers, chief digital officer for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

While acknowledging that a comprehensive and sustainable shopping experience is something he was still deliberating, Rogers said perhaps what was needed was an industry paradigm shift. Citing his experience previously as a director for Apple Music, Rogers gave an example of how he once worked to reduce the eco footprint of a Radiohead concert tour.

At first, it involved looking at ways to make the band travel lighter, but eventually Rogers realized that it wasn’t how the band traveled that mattered as much as really the thousands of fans traveling to see them perform.

The findings helped Radiohead plan and adjust their tour route. “They would only play venues accessible by public transit,” he said. “The idea was that was a much better way to address the problem than to change what Radiohead did, change Radiohead’s bus to electric.

“What is the fashion version?” Rogers queried. “That is the work we should do.”

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