Should online retailers, delivery companies really be flaunting their green credentials?

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Each year China’s big online retailers mark the “Double 11 Shopping Festival”, the country’s major online shopping event of the year since its launch a decade ago. It was originally started by Alibaba but all major platforms now take part, including Taobao,, Pinduoduo, and Vipshop. The shopping festival typically sees a frenzy of price cutting and promotional activities, with short video platforms such as Douyin, Kuaishou, and Bilibili now also taking part.

However, did the tens of billions of subsidies distributed by the platforms reduce the cost of rigid-demand shopping or stimulate unnecessary consumer demand?

A greener shopping festival?

Something that perhaps deserves more attention is the fact that protecting the environment was a major trend of this year’s Double 11 charity advocacy.

Last year, Tmall’s Double 11 launched a “green venue” for the first time. This year, it was upgraded to provide more green and low-carbon products. At the same time, consumers can open “88 carbon accounts” to participate in carbon reduction activities.

Delivery firm Cainiao upgraded its recycling stations plan this year, aiming to have nearly 100,000 Cainiao parcel stations nationwide holding activities to reward consumers who choose to recycle. About 150,000 products were made eligible for the reward program.

JD cooperated with various brands to launch more than 3 million green products — when customers purchase these products, they can get a “carbon energy saving gift”. At the same time, the retailer launched a program to allow customers to donate used clothes and exchange them for new ones.

These ideas and initiatives all look good, but on closer inspection, isn’t it contradictory to sell new products while collecting old ones? While discounting products to encourage consumers to buy, the retailers seem to use the concepts of “green” and “low-carbon” to ease consumers’ guilt about excessive consumption.

The various discounts and promotions, coupled with publicity activities and hype, have led to excessive consumption. Behind the so-called free shipping deals are cheap goods produced by polluting companies, and the pollution often comes from the whole production process — from raw materials to the end product.

Pollution is a serious problem

Greenpeace conducted a consumer behavior survey in April 2017, which showed that 60 percent of consumers in mainland China admitted to buying more than they really needed. Statistics from Greenpeace show that Chinese people bought an average of 6.5 kilograms of new clothes per person in 2014, compared to the world average of 5kg. And that figure is still growing: the transaction volume on Tmall for Double 11 in 2014 was only 57.1 billion yuan ($7.99 billion), but that number hit 540.3 billion yuan last year.

In addition, excess shopping creates environmental problems when it comes to garbage disposal. In China, about 26 million tons of old clothes are thrown away every year, and each item of clothing thrown away generates around 4kg of carbon dioxide emissions on average.

Unfortunately, excessive consumption often brings excessive packaging. Monitoring data from the State Post Bureau shows that from Nov 1 to 11 in 2020, postal and express delivery companies across China handled a total of 3.97 billion express items, with around 675 million items processed on Nov 11.

Packaging materials such as scotch tape and bubble wrap are barely recycled, and the recovery rate of express cartons is less than 20 percent.

The carbon emissions generated from disposable packaging are even more astonishing. Data shows that in 2018, a total of 9.41 million tons of express packaging was used nationwide, and 13.03 million tons of carbon emissions were generated in the production, use and disposal process of these packaging materials, meaning that around 710 million trees would need to be planted to offset the emissions generated.

What can be done?

Packages generate up to 1 million tons of waste every year, most of which is disposed of by incineration or landfill, causing pollution to the air, soil and groundwater.

On Sept 1, 2018, China officially implemented its new version of the national standard for “Express Packaging Supplies”, putting forward environmental requirements for packaging supplies, in order to promote the reduction of packaging by increasing the cost to merchants and express delivery companies.

However, because the new national standards are not mandatory, four years on, the effect has been limited.

On March 17, 2017, Cainiao Network, Alibaba Public Welfare Foundation, together with six of China’s major express delivery companies established China’s first logistics and environmental protection charity fund, planning to invest 300 million yuan to carry out green upgrades of the logistics industry to solve the increasingly serious environmental problems.

Also in 2017, Cainiao joined hands with 32 partners around the world to launch the “Green Action Plan”, promising to replace packaging materials used by Alibaba, Taobao and Tmall e-commerce express deliveries with recyclable materials by 2020. But after five years, has the promise been fulfilled?