Is it ethical to shop online during a pandemic?

Scrolling through Instagram or Twitter these past few weeks and you’d think that you were walking down a market street in a far-off country, rather than browsing your social media feed. Arms being tugged in all directions, each different clothing brand fighting to get your attention, luring you in and seducing you with their lower than ever prices.


Instagram influencers haggle with you in this figurative market, use their discount code and shop at the generic fast fashion clothing brand they’re supporting this week and in return they give you the promise of becoming your best lockdown self (what does that even mean?). Or metaphorically stroll on a little more and the next beauty guru will be offering up a selection of loungewear and an even bigger discount.  Sometimes when the deals are that good, it’s hard to decline.


Many people are stuck at home now, bored and with a bit of spare cash they’re not spending on travel to work or going out for lunch. And it’s also not surprising that people are feeling a bit down and lost, so the only logical way to fix this is spending, right? For lots buying your way out of boredom (or sadness), is a viable coping mechanism and I myself am guilty of something shiny and new cheering me up for a bit. But is retail therapy a safe and ethical way to get you through lockdown?


Is it safe for customers and workers?


Well when it comes to receiving deliveries, the packages themselves are relatively safe. Scientists have found that Covid-19 can last up to 24 hours on cardboard, so it’s a good idea to wipe down your deliveries with anti-bacterial wipes when they arrive. But they’ve also said that cardboard is good for avoiding viral transmission as it is a porous surface, decreasing the chance of you getting coronavirus even more. if you are receiving clothing packages, its good measure to wash them before you wear them, as they’re yet to have numbers on how long coronavirus can live on clothing for.

Essentially, unless the person who handles the material is sick, the risk of being infected by a parcel is very low. The only slight risk that comes is if the person has sneezed or coughed into their hand and then touched the parcel, but the virus does not infect through the skin, so wiping down the surface and washing your hands should eliminate this factor.

Technically there are very minimal health risks for you as a consumer, but the real problem lies with the companies and people who work for them who are putting themselves at an increased risk to deliver to you as the consumer.

The health and safety of delivery drivers, warehouse staff and postal workers is a concern as they have to go outside and interact with others within the supply chain to get your delivery to you.


Retailers such as Marks and Spencer and John Lewis have come under fire for continuing to trade non-essential items online during the Coronavirus crisis, potentially putting thousands of staff at risk. Marks and Spencer defended themselves by saying that “additional social distancing and hygiene measures, as well as financial support,” have been put in place for staff.

What is even more troublesome in the context of delivery companies and their staff, is that unlike healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses, they never signed up for a risky job. And there is no option for people who need money and are taking delivery jobs, companies could be exploiting those who are cash strapped and making a profit at the expense of people’s desperation of people.

Unions, including the GMB and Usdaw, added to this and said  the safety of workers is difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee at this time.

So, when it comes to online shopping in a pandemic, it’s important to be even more mindful than usual about who you support. Ultimately, it’s up to individual consumers to look into the practices of a company and be knowledgeable before purchasing from them during the pandemic.

Potentially saving the economy

Image from Pexels

Those in favour of retailers continuing to cash in on boredom buying put forward several points. In an uncertain time where actual physical stores are a distant memory, and many people’s jobs and careers have been put on hold, some not able to survive on furloughed hours. Online retailers are providing a wealth of jobs for people. From warehouse staff to couriers to website designers and IT professionals, despite possible risks that may come with it, people are still in work because of these companies. In some cases, they are even creating demand for jobs. As the amount of online shopping increases, delivery drivers and warehouse staff (whether it be for food, groceries or non-essential items), become coveted roles for many who can’t survive off furlough payments. It has made us (as a society), rethink the chain of hierarchy and what are actually essential job roles.


Online retailers are also acting as some protection against a massive economical crash and financial recession. If there is still money being exchanged for goods, people are buying things, then it may be a metaphorical wall of defence, with consumerism acting as frontline protection against a recession.


Continuing with this, it’s a major sense of comfort to small businesses who are relying on adapting their companies to suit lockdown measures. With physical customers gone for many, starting home deliveries and offering online classes is the only way they can survive. Potentially shopping online during a pandemic could be saving many people their business. So maybe instead of shopping at these chains, support independent, local small businesses in their endeavours.


Fast Fashion problem

Credit to Marissa Orton

However, the ethical issues surrounding fast fashion in the first place have not disappeared, if anything they just come with a whole load more baggage. With companies slashing their prices, you must start to consider the real cost of these items at the expense of the people making them. If something is really cheap, then it tends to have been cheap for the company to make, for them to have any sort of profit margin on it. And in turn that usually means they’re paying the people who make these clothes, very little. And as demand increases for these fast fashion brands to produce clothes that you will want to buy, so will the strain on warehouse and factory staff to deliver. This is on top of their already increased risk of infection. You have to ask yourself, do you want the latest loungewear set at the expense of someone else? My suggestion is if you are going to online shop, shop second hand, sustainably and with companies that you know treat their workers well.


Unregulated delivery and packaging

Image from Pexels

Fast fashion companies are very different from third party shopping sites, such as Etsy and Depop. Most independent sellers in the UK who use these sites to sell their goods, pack up their own parcels and sell either or pre-owned or handmade items. Although these platforms have been updated with relevant coronavirus-related information for sellers and buyers, there is still a risk as they are largely unregulated. Even though ethically these websites may be better, they may not necessarily be safer.

Depop’s chief operating officer Dominic Rose spoke to VICE  about the preventative measures that the company was putting in place since lockdown: “We’re proactively advising that all sellers use contactless collection and delivery services – specifically in the UK, via our partnership with MyHermes, and via USPS in the US – as it’s the only way to ship safely and stay at home.”


What should you do?

If you’re still uncertain over what to do, you should ask yourself a few questions before you go ahead and buy something:

Do I really need and want this item?

Is this item necessary for my physical and mental wellbeing during lockdown?

Is where I’m buying the item from, a business I want to support?

There’s no definitive answer to whether it is ethical or not to shop online during a pandemic, but I think the right thing to do is to adhere to your own personal ethics. If your knowledgeable on where you’re buying from and are happy with the standard in which they treat their staff, then you are probably alright to buy from them. However, if the thought of buying form someone makes you feel uneasy and you’d be reluctant to sing their praise son your social media channels, then maybe you should leave the basket empty for now. If you do decide not to buy, take it as an opportunity to finally wear the dress in the back of your wardrobe with the label still on and rediscover your own wardrobe.


So where does that leave us?

The state of shopping really exposes the current world we’re living in. Don’t look at those flash sales and 50% offs and let it evoke joy. Really you should be disturbed by the blatant cry for help that online retailers are screaming for us to buy from them. Where you spend your money matters now more than ever. Consumerism has become a political game, where you spend your money essentially is a decider as to what stays and what goes after lockdown.

Online shopping, I like casting a vote, click of a button and adding something to your basket is almost like endorsing in a political party. Consumers are in a unique position where they can shape retail around them. Brands that are clever with their promotional content could be the ones to survive this chapter.

Support the brands you love, research everywhere you decide to shop. This is an opportunity to support businesses that need it the most (think small and local) and change the shape of the high street as we know it.