December 10, 2022 Externalities Amanda Mull Convenience

In The Atlantic, Amanda Mull uncovers the truly incredible side effects of encouraging customers to buy things on the internet by offering free returns. It isn’t just that the practice encourages unsustainable amounts of consumption, it also turns out that most returns are unceremoniously thrown away—because restocking returns takes time, can be unhygienic, and often simply isn’t worth it when profit margins are sufficiently high.

The outlook isn’t pretty:

But returns don’t seem like a problem that can necessarily get solved completely. As the places where people used to buy clothes or stationery or kids’ toys in person are pushed out of business, online shopping becomes even more of a necessity. And Americans will probably continue to buy more than they intend to keep, even if it means an extra trip to the UPS store. Prices will go up to account for how expensive it is to send all this unwanted stuff back and forth, and companies will make nonbinding sustainability pledges that attract positive headlines while still shoveling things into landfills. They will do so until that is no longer legal, or no longer profitable for the largest and most powerful retailers, at which point they’ll force their customers to get used to something else.

Externalities are one of the most powerful, but also most toxic aspects of the internet: They can make complex logistic processes disappear behind the seeming simplicity of an order” button, but all that simplification obscures the human aspect of what’s happening behind the screens. Couple this mechanism with the endless money streams of the startup economy, and things get highly problematic.

I must admit that some of the article’s reporting caught me by surprise, and it’s making me even more skeptical towards all services or online mechanisms that promise an overwhelming convenience as selling point. If something seems too good to be true, then it most likely is—convenience is (and always has been) a tool for encouraging undesirable behaviors: From buying wasteful to-go containers and doing highly polluting travel to creating an invisible servant economy.

Last year, Berlin saw a sudden launch of grocery delivery services promising to bring your order within 10 minutes. Apparently it worked like magic, but the streets were suddenly full of delivery workers on bikes, rushing like mad. A friend of mine who worked at one of the startups quickly confirmed that injuries were rampant—not because of unsafe working practices, but because of the business model itself: Workers were rushing to meet deliver deadlines and frequently ran red lights in the process.

Most people don’t know about these externalities, and often they only become clear after some time—but understanding that convenience is often the conduit for them is a first step to avoid falling into the trap.

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