(Photos: Jessie Tan)
The other day, I had so much fun playing a particular board game with my friends that I decided to buy one for myself on Taobao, a popular e-commerce platform in China. I added the board game to cart within ten minutes, but continued to spend another hour on the app, scrolling through the list of recommended products. I bought four more items, including a privacy roller stamp that allows users to obscure private information on paper, or delivery parcels in my case, before discarding them.
After that, I launched Jingdong, another e-commerce app, and placed a request to return a toy I recently bought which turned out to be unsatisfactory. Under their “7-Day No Reason Return Policy”, a courier would pick up the toy the following day and the company would refund me thereafter.
Then the doorbell rang, which means my lunch had arrived. There was noodle soup packed in a plastic container and wrapped in cling film to prevent spillage and a cup of bubble tea; each item was delivered by a different delivery man.
In Beijing, however, I’ve often had to wrestle with myself to stick to those environmentally-friendly habits.
Convenient and affordable
Whenever I talk about my experience living in Beijing, I would inevitably gush about the convenience of living here. Food delivery services, or waimai, seldom impose minimum orders and the delivery fees are negligible at 3 RMB (S$0.64). Supermarkets and wet markets deliver fresh produce as soon as within half an hour of purchase. The plethora of e-commerce platforms are also my default go-to whenever I need anything from winter wear to a water filter to baby food and stationery. Very often, I launch the apps with the intention to buy just one item, but end up ordering other items I didn’t know I needed before a certain algorithm presented them to me.
The thing is, I never used to be like this. Back in Singapore, I was never a shopaholic and I tried as much as possible to bring my own bag and containers when buying food takeaways. If I really needed something, I would check out second-hand goods platform Carousell first, partly to save money and partly to save the earth.
Eco-friendly habits thrown out the window
In Beijing, however, I’ve often had to wrestle with myself to stick to those environmentally-friendly habits. I dread winter, and the thought of piling on layers of clothes to brave the cold is nowhere as appealing as piping hot food delivered right to my doorstep. And so I succumbed. They say it takes an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become a habit, and so the practice of ordering food deliveries in single-use plastic containers stretched into spring, summer and before I knew it, the next winter is here again. I try to make myself feel less guilty by opting for no single-use utensils, but this does not negate the amount of waste I generate because of my laziness to cross the street to get my own lunch.
The price of brand-new toys and clothes in China is also so low that it does not make sense to sell or buy second-hand ones.
I have tried to buy and sell second-hand items here, but the process is long and usually fruitless. The price of brand-new toys and clothes in China is also so low that it does not make sense to sell or buy second-hand ones. I once received a box of free toys that came with another purchase. It contained a few toy unicorns and a mini ice-cream stand — the kind of toys that typically cost at least S$20 in Toys R Us. I wanted to sell it on the used goods app Xianyu, but to my dismay, I found out that the price of a brand-new set costs only 28 RMB (S$6) on Taobao. Moreover, unlike me, they have a “7-Day No Reason Return” policy.
With e-commerce platforms offering such competitive prices and good after-sales service, it’s not surprising that most people prefer to buy their products directly from businesses instead of seeking out second-hand individual sellers, which indirectly creates more waste.
According to news reports, China's commerce ministry aims to see online retail sales in the country rise to 17 trillion RMB (US$2.66 trillion) by 2025, up from 11.8 trillion RMB in 2020. Last year, e-commerce sales via livestreaming also gained popularity, with more than 20 million livestreaming marketing activities taking place.
Indeed, in October, two of China’s top livestreamers, Austin Li Jiaqi and Viya, respectively sold 10.7 billion RMB and 8.3 billion RMB worth of products in their 12- and 14-hour livestream marathons, with more than 230 million views for each event selling hundreds of cosmetics, jewellery, electronics and fashion products. These are just two events to promote Singles’ Day sales on 11 November; the real deal had not even started. I was also amused to read that China’s private tutoring guru New Oriental will now turn to selling farm produce via livestreaming, after being affected by the “double reduction” policy aimed at reducing the study burdens of young children.
The streets of Beijing are dotted with delivery men decked in blue, yellow and black outfits from various e-commerce and food delivery platforms.
E-commerce fuels energy consumption
E-commerce is the norm in China now and will continue to be so for a long time. Expectations for the industry to grow means more consumption, more production and more resources needed to keep up with the increasing demand.
A large portion of the carbon emissions that the world wants to cut down comes from anything powered by fossil fuels, including the operation of cars and planes, the production of iron, steel and plastics, and the heating and lighting up of buildings with power generated from coal, oil or natural gas. This means that it is not just the production of goods that consumes resources, but the packaging and delivery of the goods as well.
The streets of Beijing are dotted with delivery men decked in blue, yellow and black outfits from various e-commerce and food delivery platforms. Each of them makes dozens of trips per day on their motorcycles, sending parcels and bags of food from door to door.
At his virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden recently, China’s President Xi Jinping said that the Chinese aspiration for a better life is the biggest internal driver for China's development and an inevitable trend of history that cannot be stopped.
Indeed, with high internet and smartphone penetration and an increase in the number of middle-class Chinese as the country works towards “common prosperity”, it is impossible for China to backtrack and kick the habit of online shopping and ordering food deliveries when a “better life” usually means a life of convenience and material comforts. However, China has pledged to peak its emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.
How the ‘factory of the world’ can rein in its carbon emissions
Is it really possible for "the factory of the world" to achieve these targets as the domestic demand for goods and services increases? How can it keep its promises while continuing on its development path?
My only guess is that technology is the way to go. When I visited China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in September, I saw the impressive PaperLab A-8000. Touted as “the world’s first dry-process office papermaking system", it recycles used paper into new ones right in the office. No trees would be sacrificed to produce more paper, and there is no need for water in the papermaking process. This is still a very new technology and the overall cost of producing a piece of paper this way is similar to that produced in a conventional way, but I think it's a step in the right direction.
Until there are transformative green technologies, the least that I can do is to be a mindful consumer...
If China wants to combat climate change, it must pour in more intellectual, financial and technical capital to incentivise its entrepreneurs to produce innovations that will allow people to pursue a life of comfort without leaving a negative impact on the environment.
The 11 November and Black Friday sales came and went. I bought nothing by consciously staying away from the online shopping apps on my phone. Until there are transformative green technologies, the least that I can do is to be a mindful consumer, though controlling the impulse to shop is not the easiest thing to do here.
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