Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Dark side of the webNet shopping could lead to even greater social exclusion

The internet comes with a lot of promises. Some of those are environmental: that it will save energy and cut down on waste. Some are social: that it will provide access to information for everyone and access to the biggest markets for the smallest players. But what if the net lets us down? What if e-shopping adds to total consumption, results in more vehicle journeys, not fewer, and worsens the plight of town centres?

  Answers to these questions and more will emerge next year from a research project run by Forum for the Future, the think-tank founded by the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt. The investigation was launched recently by Patricia Hewitt, the e-commerce Minister, and is backed by several large companies who hope to gain from the new marketplace, including Sun Microsystems, the Post Office and the consumer products giant, Unilever.

  "The internet is rapidly becoming the most important medium for both interactions and transactions between people and organisations," says Shanker Trivedi, Vice President for Sun Microsystems in the UK and Ireland. "We must ensure we are aware of the impact of this new paradigm on individuals and the environment."

  His concern is that the internet revolution could backfire. Instead of democracy and sustainability, we could end up with social exclusion and new environmental problems. There are clear—potential—social and environmental benefits, but there could also be a black side to the web revolution. The research project will weigh the balance between the positive and negative aspects. First, the dehumanising potential of many "digital jobs", set against the potential gains for local economies and smaller firms.

  There also is the worry that e-shoppers are likely to be the most wealthy, while the poor most desperately need to find bargains. If the e-lite replaces traditional buying with remote shopping, physical shops will be in trouble. They will have less custom to finance their expensive premises. That sounds great if it means an end to hypermarkets on the edge of town which threaten traditional shops. But what if it means closures of high street outlets instead?

  Next, consider the physical end of the internet transaction. A small number of products can be delivered down the wire—music and software, and potentially anything currently on the written page (such as this newspaper). This is positive for the environment, resulting in lower consumption of materials from newsprint to packaging, and less physical distribution.

  But most shopping cannot be completed this way. It is useful for small items such as books which can be sent through the post, but bulkier goods such as clothes and food require special deliveries. It is easy to imagine a scenario where this results in greater environmental damage, not less—quite apart from the physical dangers from wild van drivers careering up and down our streets.

  Shopping remotely, whether through traditional mail order or new media, is more likely to result in dissatisfaction. The colour isn't quite right, the size is wrong. That means more two-way trips. Then there are the items you forget when skipping down Tesco's screen catalogue, which you would spot on the shelves as you struggle past with the trolley. That is another car journey, perhaps.

  Even worse, it is possible that families freed from the chore of Saturday morning supermarketing will hop in the car and whiz miles down the motorway to some leisure paradise for the day. Finally, the internationalisation of retailing could produce a boom for air freight, as more and more goods are shipped round the world to satisfy shoppers hungry for a bargain and blind to the environmental effects. The range of such issues thrown up by e-commerce is substantial.

  James Wilsdon, senior policy adviser at Forum for the Future, says: "The jury is still out on whether the digital economy will evolve into a powerful ally of sustainable development, or a spur to greater social exclusion and environmental destruction. There is an urgent need for dialogue between policy-makers and the companies who will be driving the revolution."

  That dialogue will be achieved by the involvement of eight leading companies. The research will be carried out by a number of think-tanks. Forum for the Future will concentrate on opportunities for eco-efficiency, dematerialisation and the potential shift from products to service-based businesses, while seven other organisations will work on issues such as transport, energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, as well as wider policy issues.

  The New Economics Foundation (NEF) will look at ways of improving access to the web and the dangers of worsening social exclusion if that cannot be achieved. Alex MacGillivray of NEF said the net had the potential to be positive but without wider access it would remain primarily a middle class phenomenon. "The purchasing power of buying clubs is fine, but at the moment that is for middle class people. The people who really ought to get the benefits of lower prices are the people who at the moment are least likely to get online."

  NEF is exploring the potential to open up the net to poorer communities by providing reconditioned computers. Even then there is the question of whether old machines can capitalise on the net's potential. "You don't want people being on line but not being about to use the best services", according to MacGillivray.

  These complexities will be clearer when the researchers finish their task next year, but much will depend on how e-shopping affects consumers' behaviour. It will take several years for that to emerge.

Roger Cowe
The Guardian

24 February 2000

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