Happy shopping day - or opportunity to waste

From a celebration of being single to a global shopping frenzy, Chinese Singles’ Day has turned into a huge online shopping event. As a result, millions of parcels will be traveling to shoppers around the world. But what does the peak in e-commerce mean for the environment?


November 11th is the biggest shopping day in the world. The day, when written numerically, is a line-up of symbolic lonely number ones, and in Chinese culture has the meaning of “bare branches”, or a person not in a relationship.

As an antidote to a romantic Valentine’s Day and against pressure to marry, Chinese university students in Nanjing began to celebrate being single in the 1990s. But it was the retail mastermind, billionaire and co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, who turned the event commercial in 2009. Today people with all kinds of relationship statuses take part in the global shopping extravaganza.

The United States has their own equivalent, Black Friday. But sales on November 11th are eight times higher than on Black Friday. Last year on Singles’ Day 1.48 billion transactions were made. More than twice as much merchandise was purchased over the first 24-hour period of the Singles’ Day sale than during the entire five-day US holiday period, which culminates with Black Friday. Last year Alibaba’s sales on Singles’ Day were close to 25 billion dollars. That is more than the GDP of Cyprus or Iceland.

The Singles’ Day shopping bonanza means also over one billion packages flying across the globe. Millions of packages add up to tonnes of cardboard, plastic, tape and bubble wrap. Along with impressive sales figures, Singles’ Day has also become to signify a huge amount of waste. Last year Singles’ Day sales resulted in an estimated 300 000 tonnes of unrecycled packaging waste in China. Recently many have started to voice concern over the impact of the one-day shopping spree on the environment. One of those uneasy about the blatant commercialism is the author and journalist Lijia Zhang.

“Online shopping has really caught on in China in a big way,” Zhang says. “The Chinese Government has realized the problems for the environment and has set a body to oversee the environmental impact of logistics companies. But many ordinary people don’t know or care about the disastrous result this shopping festival has on the environment.”

Online shopping giants

Globally, e-commerce has grown over 112 percent over the past four years, according to Statista. And sales are expected to grow up to five trillion dollars by 2021. In the US, 165 billion packages are sent every year, five billion of which are from Amazon. But the global leader in e-commerce in China, where 20 percent of all shopping is done online. Alibaba alone has 634 million monthly users on its shopping site and it controls 60 percent of the Chinese e-commerce market.

It is not a coincidence that the e-commerce evolution has happened in China, says e-commerce expert from Business Finland’s eCom Growth program, Leevi Parsama.

“There are two main factors behind the success of e-commerce in China. One is their huge potential domestic market and the other is fast digitalisation,” says Parsama. “Many Chinese people have never had a computer, but the majority have a mobile phone. And a big advancement is that mobile payment is widely available and functional.”

Parsama says that even China’s former one-child policy can contribute to people’s shopping preferences. Social relationships formed via mobile platforms are important to Chinese people without siblings. Online social platforms like WeChat have managed to tap into this. Chinese shopping sites are not only for buying things but for entertainment and connection, he describes.

“Chinese e-commerce is visionary, as it combines gaming elements, entertaining content, social media and shopping into one engaging experience.”

New innovations for packaging

E-commerce giants like Alibaba and Amazon are increasingly waking up to the environmental impact the expansion of home-delivered goods have on the environment. Amazon claims it has cut nearly a quarter of a million tons of packaging waste during the past ten years and has thus avoided 500 million boxes. Alibaba’s logistic company Cainiao has shifted partly to boxes without tape and uses biodegradable material in some deliveries. Alibaba has announced plans to replace half of its packages with biodegradable plastics by 2020. As Alibaba ships 12 million packages per day, that would mean a huge market also for new packing materials.

Sustainable packaging consultant and Adjunct Professor at The Packaging School and at North Carolina State University, Dr. Sandeep Kulkarni is optimistic that a shift towards more sustainable material is coming from inside the industry but is further driven by the increase in consumers being aware of environmental issues, like plastic waste in the oceans.

“Growth in e-commerce has meant many smaller packages are being sent. To reduce shipping costs and carbon footprint, the trend is towards more customised, thinner packages,” Dr. Kulkarni explains.
Dr. Kulkarni considers corrugated cardboard to be one of the best materials for replacing or minimising the use of plastic in shipping.

“The major advantage is that the material is recyclable, and it can be made totally with recycled material, therefore the energy needed to produce packaging is reduced.”

Dr. Kulkarni is keenly following innovations in developing replacement material for plastic. He notes that big global brands have public sustainability policies, which they are committed to. He sees lots of potential, especially for new materials that can be used to create light, flexible pouches.

“It is a balance finding material that protects the goods and is environmentally sustainable,” Dr. Kulkarni says. “For the future, I am looking forward to bio-based, compostable foam inserts as well as moulded fibre packaging gaining much more ground.”


Text: Anna Gustafsson

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