It’s 1:00am and I’m online shopping in bed, on my phone. I put khaki high rise shorts in my cart. I’ve gained the COVID-19, as they say. Not quite 19, but my favorite shorts did rip recently when squatting to turn the water filter under the sink on. I throw in a floral mid-length sundress too, because if I’m paying for shipping, then why not? The convenience outweighs the hesitation. I’m saving time, I’m saving gas money, I need to look put together to be taken seriously. One thing is clear, brick and mortar retail is now the secondary option. Why drive to a store and park my car and peruse the aisles and wait in line and get a ribbon of paper signifying my purchase when I can scroll, click, confirm? Plus it’s like Christmas, opening all those boxes.

I close the window without purchasing and open Reddit. A young man’s video about cleaning the trash from the river running through his university campus is on the front page. I think about how it’s fewer carbon emissions to ship salmon from Thailand to Los Angeles than to drive salmon from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I wonder if anything lives on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I look up the fine for littering in Taiwan. I remember the discarded face masks I passed on the sidewalk on my way to work. I put my phone down and roll over to try to sleep.

I am that friend, that brings reusable Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers , that scolds for using single-use water bottles, that has a vendetta against Nestle. That tries to buy locally and pre-owned, that brings a waste bag on hikes and picks up litter, that has been vegetarian for 12 years and tried to be vegan but loves cheese. It is an oxymoron to be a conscious consumer. We truly have no idea the path our goods take to reach our doorstep. Sometimes the futility and sheer wastefulness is overwhelming. Do I Alexander Supertramp it and cut up the dozen identification/payment cards in my wallet? Live off of society’s discarded surplus for free and search for deeper meaning within? Do I participate in the consumerism as much as “necessary” and try to be a force for good within the system? Do I accept my insignificance and order whatever my hedonistic impulses command?

I’m a hypocrite. I ordered hiking boots for my dog just a few hours ago. His paws get cut up on rocky hikes and he deserves everything. I convinced myself this product would last, it would be thoroughly used, appreciated, it would expand our adventure capabilities. I have no idea where the raw materials came from, who will manufacture them and what their working conditions are, how many layers of nonbiodegradable packaging the little booties will arrive in. Instead of the dopamine rush widely noted from clicking “confirm and pay,” I go still.

It is clear this new way of shopping is not going away. Barring global societal meltdown from nuclear fallout, international economic collapse, climate change disaster, etc., the only way I see forward is to begin to implement systems that will ameliorate the harm. Sustainable packaging must either be fully biodegradable or have a strict cradle-to-grave recycling policy. Shipping and package delivery must be carbon neutral and need not occur at break-neck next-day arrival speed. Taxes must be redirected towards ocean/lake/river cleanup, recycling programs that actually recycle, and incentives for citizens and companies to reduce their environmental impact.

Leading by a bold, clear, and firm example is the only way to impart change. Dura-Pack’s flexible packaging and semi-biodegradable materials are a superb start. I do not know the packaging industry at all, but it is an industry I personally benefit from daily. We should not set unrealistic standards of perfection, or have contempt for anyone who does not fully understand the problem and the consequences. We have to try to be that friend to everyone, to give nonjudgmental and enthusiastic encouragement to strive to be better. It is everyone’s responsibility to hold those in power accountable, and equally everyone’s responsibility to hold themselves accountable.

The packaging from the dog hiking boots will most likely be cardboard and PET. I will toss them in my apartment complex’s recycling bin and hope for the best from my community’s waste management system. I will use the boots frequently, and ensure they are fully utilized and in top condition. I will continue my efforts to lead by example and only consume what is necessary and “mostly necessary,” and I will feel grateful that my dog’s feet are unscathed on long hikes on our beautiful planet.

Essay by: Hannah Worden
University of Southern California