Last year, China’s biggest shopping festival saw 125,000 orders processed every minute over 24 hours. This year promises to be even bigger... and that’s bad news for the environment. 

What began as a tongue-in cheek poke at China’s couple-obsessed culture has morphed into the single biggest online shopping event in the world.

‘Singles’ Day’ is almost upon us: a frenzied 24-hour shopping festival that generates bigger sales - and bigger volumes of waste - than Black Friday and Cyber Monday put together. 

So named for the symbolic loneliness of the date 11.11, the holiday was started by students in Nanjing University in the early 90s as an excuse to celebrate single life and treat themselves to gifts.   

It remained fairly small until 2009 when executives at Alibaba, China’s biggest online shopping platform, saw an opportunity and decided to stage a 24 hour-only event, slashing prices on everything from phones and clothing, to electronics, furniture and much more. It was a roaring success.

Since then, Singles’ Day sales have mushroomed into a feverish buy-a-thon that is unrivaled globally. China’s online shopping population more than tripled in the past five years to 410 million and their pockets are deep: entering its eighth year, Alibaba’s Singles Day sales are predicted to hit USD20 Billion - an increase of 40% from last year’s record-breaking sales.

 

 

Now, Singles Day has set its sights beyond mainland China and is looking to go global. International brands such as Walmart and Costco are already offering steep discounts for the event and Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have have been gearing up this past week.

Last year, Alibaba dialed it up with a five-hour-long star-studded live television gala featuring unlikely celebrity appearances and live tracking of sales.    

It’s hard to resist the allure of a good bargain, but long after the momentary thrill of an impulse purchase fades, the environmental impact lingers for years.

We’re already consuming and trashing goods at a far higher rate than our planet can handle. And as the ‘world’s factory’, China’s air, soil and waterways will bear the brunt of this vicious cycle.

From air pollution to mining graphite for smartphones, or toxic chemical dyes polluting rivers, the goods we buy take an enormous environmental toll long before products have even hit the (virtual) shelves. Now, over half of China’s groundwater is unfit for human contact - in parts of the country, this figure is as high as 80%; and many of China’s vital rivers are battling heavy metal pollution contributing to  the dying out of entire species.

10 November 2016

 

760 million orders were processed and delivered last Singles Day. That’s 760 million separate items worth of plastic and paper packaging destined for the landfill, or worse, in our oceans

 

 

The goods we consume have an ever-decreasing lifespan: from the first point of manufacturing to the moment the package lands on your doorstep, this entire process can take as little as 20 days. And the lifespan of our products after purchase is shrinking as well.  

A recent report shows that Hong Kongers throw out the equivalent of 1400 t-shirts a minute and waste over USD 500 million a year on clothes that respondents admitted they ‘rarely’ wear. In 2012, 85% of clothes ended up in America’s landfills.

Of course we can recycle or donate, but those channels are already overloaded with our unwanted clothes. The recycling industry is struggling to keep up with the volume of clothing being sent its way and the process racks up huge energy costs for transportation and processing. In developing countries like Kenya, second hand clothes are so flooding local markets that a ban on these imports is being considered.

Meanwhile, a huge portion of the 30 million tonnes of electronic waste that is thrown out every year, is now piling up in China and Hong Kong’s e-waste dumping grounds.

 

 

 

The only solution is to reduce our levels of consumption. The good news is, as consumers, we hold an extraordinary amount of power to directly reverse this trend. 

It could be as simple as taking a pause before making a purchase to determine whether or not you really need it; buying second hand or vintage instead of new; choosing to repair or up- cycle your smartphone instead of lining up for the latest model; or foregoing the use of disposable plastic bags, cups and chopsticks.

It’s time we trashed the mentality of ‘trendy now, trash tomorrow’ and start consuming in a way that’s better for the planet (and ultimately better on our pockets too)

In the words of the great Vivian Westwood:

 

 

 

Happy Singles Day!

 

Take the pledge to reduce overconsumption here. 

Anna McGurk is a content editor for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing