The Cost of Everything
In 2019, Americans alone spent a combined $751 billion on conveniences. What often seems like a small price to pay for requesting an Uber, grocery delivery or 1-day Amazon Prime shipping, factors out to a lot more that you don’t see. The steps we take to expedite our lives have created an addiction to a low effort, high-reward game riddled with consequences from economic, to social and environmental– all at the touch of a button.
Back when I was growing up, day-to-day conveniences meant a fast food drive-thru every now and then, taking a shortcut on the way home or printing out directions from MapQuest. Things moved slower, and that was ok. There was dial-up Internet, waiting 10 minutes for one page to load was not uncommon and instant gratification from a mail-order wasn’t so instant at all. To place a stamp on when time became more of a commodity can be most easily traced back to the technology boom of the mid-2000’s, when internet was no longer a disc from AOL to install on your desktop, but a world easily accessed from anywhere at any time, a portal in the palm of your hands.
When the iPhone was first introduced in 2007, Steve Jobs said to an awed audience at a San Francisco convention center, “The killer app is making calls” speaking to the reliability of the device as a phone. In fact, the first iPhone did not feature an App Store, a way Jobs sought to keep the phone more streamlined from third parties. The phone, in Jobs’ mind, was meant to be just that– a phone, with music capabilities. “It’s the best iPod we’ve ever made.” Jobs exclaimed in his address, making it clear that he envisioned a simpler, more refined iPhone experience than the one we’ve grown to know over a decade later.
So what exactly happened? Well, with information easily accessible and spreading like wildfire, a more connected world meant a busier one. And it’s the notion of “busy” that would change our interactions with daily tasks and automate our existence. Being able to communicate and receive information in an instant, our world was sped up and suddenly; we became global citizens without needing a passport stamp. Rapid communication meant we were able to fit more tasks into our days and the rise of apps meant there was always a company looking to make your life just a little easier.
The hunger for right-now is a need instilled by opportunity marketing– marketers are tasked with making you believe you are as busy as they need you to be so that you can opt-in for time saving apps, services and devices. Ads for apps like Postmates, Doordash and InstaCart boast taglines like “save time” and “get ahead” to emphasize what you are missing and what can be gained through their services. But with all this ease for the consumer, the backend of these services prove costly for the businesses involved. Let’s take the food industry for example: Because the consumer is now service-driven (delivery, etc) rather than visiting an establishment to pick up their meal or dine-in, restaurants are now moved to join apps like GrubHub and UberEats for exposure to reach more customers. But these app partnerships are not always in favor of the businesses they host. A recent article from Eater reveals that some of these apps are taking as much as 50 cents per dollar ordered, while most hover between 15 to 30 percent per order. These exuberant fee’s hit small businesses the hardest, making it difficult for them to keep a viable business, finding them on the losing end of delivery app partnerships.
Our reliance on delivery apps shows what we’ve been groomed to depend on, the labor of others to provide us with a shortcut regardless of cost monetary or otherwise. We’re living in a society where attention spans are shorter, multitasking is an extreme sport and a minute feels like a mile. Companies like Amazon saw what we were beginning to expect and made a fortune from it. In 2005 Amazon launched Prime, aimed to get customers to spend more and keep retention high. At the time, for just $79 a year customers got 2-day shipping on every order with a few caveats. This seemed like a fair trade to feed a sense of urgency, and 15 years later it’s the biggest thing going with over 112 million subscribers in the United States. It’s not crazy to think how Amazon keeps growing to be the most powerful corporation in the world, as technology grew, so did our impatience, and Amazon saw our insatiable hunger for immediacy, fed it and flipped it on its head with a growing list of offerings aimed to put even its most aggressive competitors out of business. But our impatience comes with stark consequences for the environment. Aiming to be the go-to retailer for household items customers regularly need, to beat out competitors like CVS and Target, Amazon offers 1–2 day shipping on almost all their items regardless of how cheap they may be. Slicing their price barriers for free shipping, this comes at a great convenience for customers but a terrible expense for the environment.
Amazon’s footprint is divided between freight vehicles (the highest producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the US), plane emissions, and not to mention the human costs and man power needed for Amazon’s distribution. An investigation by BuzzFeed News found that contracted drivers worked under grueling conditions to meet their shipping goals, leading to skipped meals and reckless driving. All this mounted on top of our current state of global pandemic as we fight coronavirus and Amazon’s demand is higher than ever. Stay-at-home orders have left many Americans afraid to leave the house leaving them with little options to shop for necessities outside of Amazon, leading revenues for the company to skyrocket. While in contrast, increased demand has disproportionately left workers at the company’s distribution centers at risk for contracting coronavirus. There are of course, ways companies can opt for more environmentally friendly operations: In September 2019, CEO Jeff Bezsos said Amazon currently uses 40% of renewable energy sources, in theory this is great, however with high demand and increased speed of delivery, it has hard to keep up with sustainable practices– and corporations at this scale will always choose profits over plausibility.
Consumer conditioning has led to the exponential growth of these companies and convenience platforms wont work to make more conscious decisions unless they are forced to by customers. Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to reshape the market. It’s impossible to expect companies to go against their financial interests, but with changed consumer behavior and shifted expectations, corporations can have the time outside of demand to move towards more ethical operations. It’s a big ask considering the temptation of 1-day shipping and food at your door in under 30 minutes, but with throwing out the idea of instant gratification and placing more emphasis on slowing down, we can all make a much needed transition towards more mindful consumption.