How shipping delays have highlighted our growing reliance on online shopping — and appetite for spending

·4 min read
As climate disasters strain the supply chain in B.C., increasing holiday shopping — much of it online — is contributing to the problem, writer J.B. MacKinnon says. (Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock - image credit)
As climate disasters strain the supply chain in B.C., increasing holiday shopping — much of it online — is contributing to the problem, writer J.B. MacKinnon says. (Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock - image credit)

Eileen Cook had something on her Christmas list even she admits was "boring" — a vacuum cleaner to clean up the hair from her two dogs.

The Vancouver-based novelist started to look for deals around Black Friday on Nov. 26, increasingly the time for many Canadians to do their Christmas shopping as retailers provide deep discounts.

But after picking out a Dyson vacuum cleaner with a $150 discount the day before Black Friday, she discovered how the province's unprecedented flooding disaster had hamstrung the supply chain.

Cook was greeted with an error message that said, "Due to the ongoing situation in British Columbia, we are unable to ship any products to the province at this time." She eventually had to resort to another retailer.

As well as illustrating the effects of B.C.'s supply chain issues, the recent delivery delays have left some people like Cook wondering whether we really need to buy so much online — and for the festive season in particular.

Cook says her experience with the vacuum cleaner was instructive of a wider trend — online delivery simplifying shopping to the point it had become a "habit."

"When we can't do something like that, it's suddenly just really surprising and it makes you realize how fragile, sometimes, all the systems are," she said.

The delivery issues in B.C. stem from torrential rainfall that fell across the southwest of the province from Nov. 13 to Nov. 15, causing widespread flooding and landslides that washed out major highways and cut rail lines.

A month later, Canada Post, the nation's largest delivery provider, said the province's "fragile" roads are still affecting their ability to carry mail and parcels into, out of and around the province, affecting Christmas deliveries.

"We have enacted various contingency plans to move items into and out of B.C. as well as within B.C. through various channels," a Canada Post spokesperson said in a statement.

B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure/Reuters
B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure/Reuters

Holiday sales rising

But some wonder whether we should be buying so much in the first place.

Author J.B. MacKinnon says B.C.'s supply chain issues have been made worse by online shopping and deliveries.

MacKinnon, whose book The Day the World Stops Shopping looks at the impact of consumerism on the planet and what would happen if large-scale purchasing simply stopped, says holiday buying across Canada has surged in the past decade.

He also pointed to U.S. stats that showed spending there had increased by nearly 50 per cent from 2010 to 2020.

"I think people need to ask themselves, 10 years ago, was there something seriously wrong with Christmas that required us to [significantly increase] consumer spending to make it a more satisfying holiday?" he said.

"I don't think anyone is seriously going to answer that question with 'yes.'"

Holiday retail sales in the U.S., in billions

MacKinnon says numerous surveys over the years have shown Canadians think Christmas is too commercialized.

But he said there's a "tension" between that realization and the reality — the systems of commercialism and capitalism incentivizing holiday purchases.

"As much as people may wish that Christmas was less commercial … they want to celebrate Christmas in a way that everyone else is celebrating Christmas," he said.

MacKinnon's research has also shown that consumerism is actively contributing to the planet's climate crisis.

Despite companies' efforts to "green the crisis away" by aiming for carbon zero, MacKinnon says investments in technologies like renewable energy will not help overcome the emissions generated by the manufacture and sale of consumer products.

In light of B.C.'s experiences of climate disaster in 2021 — including the recent flooding and the deadly "heat dome" of late June — he wants people to start actively thinking about reducing their consumption for the benefit of the planet.

"The way I think it changes is we kick-start that conversation about actually reducing consumption and building a lower consuming society," he said.

"Start moving in that direction as individuals, as businesses, and through the power of the government."

Canada Post has advised online shoppers to buy local during the holidays, saying small businesses have "unique alternatives" as delivery issues affect larger retailers.

MacKinnon also advises shoppers this holiday season to consider "circular economies" that offer second-hand goods, such as thrift stores and classified websites, as well as getting quality items that don't wear out immediately.

"Buy less, buy better," he said.

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