Is Online Shopping Ethical During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

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The past two months following the coronavirus outbreak have introduced all sorts of adjustments and new norms into day-to-day life. For many people, shopping was once an activity that didn’t require much forethought or reflection — maybe, unless, you were going back and forth about a big splurge. But today, shopping involves so much more than just buying things you like.

In the midst of growing economic uncertainty, people are becoming increasingly hesitant to spend money. There are also other factors to take into consideration, like worker safety up and down the supply chain, as well as what it means to do your part to help a small business stay open. Ahead, a few experts offer some advice for how to approach shopping in the age of COVID-19.

So, I just feel weird about shopping right now. What do I do?

“Spend a few moments reflecting on what it is [you] plan to purchase and why [you] plan to make that purchase,” Ross Steinman, consumer psychologist and professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania, tells Bustle. “For example, at first glance it might seem excessive for someone to purchase a bulk package of sidewalk chalk. However, for parents suddenly faced with homeschooling their young children, this might allow them a few hours of quiet time where they can work without interruptions.”

Why do I experience guilt or unease about shopping?

“Guilt is complex,” says Stephanie Newman, a psychologist and author. “Sometimes you feel it because you’re worried you have done something harmful to another person, [or] fear you’re hurting someone else. That does not apply in the shopping scenario.”

Newman explains that if you can afford to support the economy during this devastating time, your purchasing power can have significant effects. “Your purchases help, not hurt,” she says. “The ripple effects of a first wave of economic damage — store workers losing jobs and suffering economic distress, businesses closing, unemployment at a large scale — are already being felt. If you can afford to indulge, and it makes you happy, go for it. We all need to be nice to ourselves right now.”

What are some ways to support businesses without going shopping IRL?

The most obvious answer is buying gift cards. It’s a true win-win: Businesses can benefit from the economic boost immediately, and you can save your gift card for whenever you’re ready to use it in the future. And while gift cards can have a reputation for being impersonal as birthday or anniversary gifts, during this unprecedented time, buying them to help your favorite brand or business stay afloat is more than enough reason to gift them to loved ones.

Also, be more conscious about where you’re shopping and the business practices they’re using. Retailers like The Outnet and Bed, Bath, & Beyond are offering services like “shop now, ship later" and some brands — like Ganni and H&M — are either donating a portion of sales to coronavirus relief efforts, or they’ve made lump sum donations.

How can I adjust my shopping habits to ease anxiety?

As with most things in life, it comes down to finding balance. Treat yourself when it feels right, but rein it in when you need to. That’s especially true if you’re feeling too out of control right now — not shopping as much can offer some much needed structure.

“For those who feel calmed by the sense that they have at least a modicum of control, cutting back can feel good,” Newman says. “Purchase only necessary items, including what’s needed to look your best in a Zoom session or what you will be wearing to an upcoming future in-person event. Stick to a budget.”

What should I take into consideration before clicking “add to cart”?

Focus on needs instead of wants. There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself, but if you’re going to spend money during this period of uncertainty, it’s best to cough up cash for products and services you will actually use. And if you’re still unsure about a purchase, just hold off for now.

“I recommend that people limit their purchases until the uncertainty subsides,” Steinman says. “Many individuals are already facing financial stressors. Adding another one due to unchecked online shopping will only make things more difficult for them in the future.”