APPENDIX C: ARTICLE FROM THE GUARDIAN
Dark side of the webNet shopping could
lead to even greater social exclusion
The internet comes with a lot of promises. Some of
those are environmental: that it will save energy and cut down
on waste. Some are social: that it will provide access to information
for everyone and access to the biggest markets for the smallest
players. But what if the net lets us down? What if e-shopping
adds to total consumption, results in more vehicle journeys, not
fewer, and worsens the plight of town centres?
Answers to these questions and more will emerge
next year from a research project run by Forum for the Future,
the think-tank founded by the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt.
The investigation was launched recently by Patricia Hewitt, the
e-commerce Minister, and is backed by several large companies
who hope to gain from the new marketplace, including Sun Microsystems,
the Post Office and the consumer products giant, Unilever.
"The internet is rapidly becoming the most
important medium for both interactions and transactions between
people and organisations," says Shanker Trivedi, Vice President
for Sun Microsystems in the UK and Ireland. "We must ensure
we are aware of the impact of this new dot.com paradigm on individuals
and the environment."
His concern is that the internet revolution
could backfire. Instead of democracy and sustainability, we could
end up with social exclusion and new environmental problems. There
are clearpotentialsocial and environmental benefits,
but there could also be a black side to the web revolution. The
research project will weigh the balance between the positive and
negative aspects. First, the dehumanising potential of many "digital
jobs", set against the potential gains for local economies
and smaller firms.
There also is the worry that e-shoppers are
likely to be the most wealthy, while the poor most desperately
need to find bargains. If the e-lite replaces traditional buying
with remote shopping, physical shops will be in trouble. They
will have less custom to finance their expensive premises. That
sounds great if it means an end to hypermarkets on the edge of
town which threaten traditional shops. But what if it means closures
of high street outlets instead?
Next, consider the physical end of the internet
transaction. A small number of products can be delivered down
the wiremusic and software, and potentially anything currently
on the written page (such as this newspaper). This is positive
for the environment, resulting in lower consumption of materials
from newsprint to packaging, and less physical distribution.
But most shopping cannot be completed this way.
It is useful for small items such as books which can be sent through
the post, but bulkier goods such as clothes and food require special
deliveries. It is easy to imagine a scenario where this results
in greater environmental damage, not lessquite apart from
the physical dangers from wild van drivers careering up and down
Shopping remotely, whether through traditional
mail order or new media, is more likely to result in dissatisfaction.
The colour isn't quite right, the size is wrong. That means more
two-way trips. Then there are the items you forget when skipping
down Tesco's screen catalogue, which you would spot on the shelves
as you struggle past with the trolley. That is another car journey,
Even worse, it is possible that families freed
from the chore of Saturday morning supermarketing will hop in
the car and whiz miles down the motorway to some leisure paradise
for the day. Finally, the internationalisation of retailing could
produce a boom for air freight, as more and more goods are shipped
round the world to satisfy shoppers hungry for a bargain and blind
to the environmental effects. The range of such issues thrown
up by e-commerce is substantial.
James Wilsdon, senior policy adviser at Forum
for the Future, says: "The jury is still out on whether the
digital economy will evolve into a powerful ally of sustainable
development, or a spur to greater social exclusion and environmental
destruction. There is an urgent need for dialogue between policy-makers
and the companies who will be driving the dot.com revolution."
That dialogue will be achieved by the involvement
of eight leading companies. The research will be carried out by
a number of think-tanks. Forum for the Future will concentrate
on opportunities for eco-efficiency, dematerialisation and the
potential shift from products to service-based businesses, while
seven other organisations will work on issues such as transport,
energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, as well as wider policy
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) will look
at ways of improving access to the web and the dangers of worsening
social exclusion if that cannot be achieved. Alex MacGillivray
of NEF said the net had the potential to be positive but without
wider access it would remain primarily a middle class phenomenon.
"The purchasing power of buying clubs is fine, but at the
moment that is for middle class people. The people who really
ought to get the benefits of lower prices are the people who at
the moment are least likely to get online."
NEF is exploring the potential to open up the
net to poorer communities by providing reconditioned computers.
Even then there is the question of whether old machines can capitalise
on the net's potential. "You don't want people being on line
but not being about to use the best services", according
These complexities will be clearer when the
researchers finish their task next year, but much will depend
on how e-shopping affects consumers' behaviour. It will take several
years for that to emerge.
24 February 2000