A quick scroll through Instagram this week is like walking through a cattle market. Fashion influencers flog discounted affiliate links. Brands are dropping prices lower than ever. At least there is one constant during a pandemic: capitalism still reigns supreme. Bloggers, advertisers and fast fashion companies are thirstier than ever for our attention and money.
For those of us who are bored and housebound with an income, it can be tempting to order every item imaginable from Missguided et al. I am hearing the call, aren't you? The one that says: we’re sick and tired of living through coronavirus, so let’s Order Stuff to our hearts' content.
But it isn’t that simple. Should we actually be buying non-essential items online? Many companies are ploughing through the crisis offering little to no extra coronavirus-related information to their customers. Food is one thing, but five Boohoo jumpsuits, a pair of curling irons from Amazon and a series of increasingly deranged accessories courtesy of teenagers on Depop is quite another. Is online shopping at this time of crisis actively dangerous for us and other people – and is it ethical and justifiable?
First: the health basics. Coronavirus is a respiratory illness that spreads via airborne droplets. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the virus can land on someone’s face or get inhaled. But people can also catch COVID-19 if they touch their face after coming into contact with an infected surface or object.
A new study, published last Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed how the virus disintegrates on various materials. The researchers found that the virus disintegrates over the course of 24 hours on cardboard, which suggests cardboard packages that arrive in the mail could only have low levels of the virus, if your postman was healthy and well. On plastic packages, the virus lasts for up to 72 hours – three whole days. Luckily, the amount of virus decreases on both surfaces from the initial time of contamination.
It's currently still unknown how long this specific virus lives on various textiles, like clothing. This hasn't been properly tested, barring a Journal of Hospital Infection study where it was found to remain infectious on a disposable gown for up to two days.
Unless the person who handles any of these materials is sick, the actual risk of infection is low, experts concluded in a New York Times feature on the study. That slight risk increases if the delivery person has coughed or sneezed on your package or passed it to you with contaminated hands. It's important to remember this virus doesn't infect through the skin barrier, but through your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you're concerned, you can wipe down packages with disinfectant wipes and wash your hands, a spokesperson from Public Health England (PHE) told VICE.
“There’s no reason for you to have interaction with somebody who delivers a parcel that can be left on your doorstep. If you are of a vulnerable group, it’s about staying over two meters away from people – that allows you to answer the door to people," the PHE spokesperson said.
They added that you can also leave a note on your door for couriers telling them to leave your packages on the doorstep or in a safe place. That way, they can ring the bell or knock on the door to announce their arrival before leaving your premises.
These measures, of course, predominantly protect the customer rather than the person delivering the package. But we should be putting the safety of the delivery drivers, warehouse workers and their families at the centre of our concerns, too. Travelling from house to vehicle to house, they are at far higher risk of catching the virus than those able to work from home. These people are frequently self-employed and on zero hours contracts; they are less likely to have financial security. In the US, there are already reports of couriers not being given hand sanitiser or gloves, even as delivery numbers soar. One worker at Amazon's biggest warehouse in New York City has already tested positive for the virus.
“In a pandemic, one of the most important priorities is to diminish the risk of contagion. To that end, you should have the least possible contact with the least amount of people, and as seldom as possible,” says Dr Carissa Véliz, a professor at Oxford, who specialises in practical ethics.
If you absolutely need an item, ordering it to your home might reduce the level of contact with multiple people than if you went to a store, but this need becomes a lot less easy to justify when it's new trainers and handbags.
“What is problematic about couriers, in the context of the coronavirus, is that they didn’t sign up for that risk,” says Véliz. “That makes them very different to many others, such as healthcare professionals, who are performing risky jobs. One concern is that there is no option for people who need the money and have this job and suddenly find themselves in a very high risk situation.”
Ultimately, it’s up to individual consumers to look into the business practices of a company and demand to know more before purchasing from them during the pandemic. But Véliz stresses that a company mistreating its workers is a consequence of the government not forcing them to do the right thing.
She explains: “Even though it is very reasonable and important for people to ask themselves what they should do in this circumstance, it is also equally important that they don’t let governments and companies off the hook if they aren’t doing their job properly – so we don’t have to carry the moral burden as citizens.”
If you do decide to boycott a company for ethical reasons, Véliz adds, it's important to make sure the company knows you're doing it: tweet them, email them and tell them what they're doing wrong.
Thanks to the lockdown, people stuck at home might feel more inclined than ever to buy their way out of boredom. Fast fashion companies are currently pumping out promo and dropping prices despite their vagueness around safety information and plans to protect their staff's health.
Worryingly, Boohoo staff were initially told to come into work as usual despite the lockdown, a _Telegrap_h exclusive revealed. One insider told them that "Boohoo has advised staff to observe the two-metre separation rule. However, that is impossible to achieve due to the nature of the work." A Boohoo spokesperson told VICE that the vast majority of staff are now working from home, including those in high risk health categories, and notes that measures announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday night still allow those unable to work from home to travel.
ASOS have started a hashtag #AtHomeWithASOS and launched a sale with up to 50 percent off new season items. They telling VICE that it's business as normal and that they are "supporting our colleagues by adhering to UK Government and Public Health England guidance". We were also directed to a statement by the CEO via a public email to ASOS customers that states that ASOS is protecting the safety of its employees, but doesn't detail whether that means flexibility around sick pay or allowing those vulnerable to coronavirus to automatically work from home.
Topshop didn’t respond to requests for comment on the safety of their workers and customers, but is posting new product with relatable captions (“even our handbags are staying at home right now”). They've also launched a sale of up to 30 percent off and reduced fees for year-long next-day delivery.
It's clear that the ethical issues around fast fashion – like its working conditions and wastefulness – still apply even though we're in the pandemic. They just come with a host of additional issues now.
Fast fashion companies are quite different from third party shopping services, like Depop and eBay. Most freelance UK sellers on these sites pack up their own parcels as individuals and sell either handmade or pre-owned items, and both platforms have been updated with relevant coronavirus-related information for sellers and buyers.
Depop's chief operating officer Dominic Rose told VICE in a statement to VICE that changes (outlined in full here) have been made since the lockdown was announced: "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."
An eBay spokesperson also told VICE: "Our platform is still operating as usual for sellers, but we are constantly updating our measures as the situation evolves.”
If you're still feeling torn, make a check-list for yourself. Do I really need this item and will I need it after the pandemic is over? Is this item necessary for my physical or mental health during the lockdown? Could I buy this from a local, independent business rather than a big corporation? Use your judgement and hold yourself to your own standards. By contacting brands publicly on social media and via email, you can help to ensure they’re looking after their staff, while saving money enjoying everything you already own. Who knows? You might finally wear that velour romper you bought in 2018 and get through the pile of books you imagined reading after uni.