We’re Shopping a Ton Online. Let’s Be Conscientious About It

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Online shopping in a pandemic feels like a constant ethical dilemma.

I thought about buying jigsaw puzzles to occupy myself in quarantine life. But I wondered whether it was worth stressing the workers who pack, ship and deliver something I didn’t need. BUT, businesses need my dollars right now, and people need work.

It’s exhausting to balance our safety, that of others and the financial health of our communities.

I discussed this recently with Sally Bergesen, the founder and chief executive of the athletic apparel company Oiselle. Neither of us are philosophers, but Sally says she wants her company to support women in leadership roles, improve conditions for female athletes and help the rest of us feel connected. She thinks about the big picture.

I came away with a rough blueprint of how we can be conscientious shoppers in a pandemic.

The basic idea is to think. Think about whether the company you’re buying from needs the business, and how many people involved in the purchase might be in harm’s way. Think about whether what you’re buying can wait for more normal times. And keep thinking about our personal responsibility as shoppers when this crisis subsides.

Thinking won’t cure disease, but it matters.

First, if you can, Sally said, “Definitely patronize the business that you want to see survive in the future.”

This is a self-serving message from a small company. But she’s right that the pandemic-created economic freeze is likely to leave big companies in better shape than smaller ones. If we want more than Walmart, Amazon and McDonald’s in our economy, our behavior can make a difference.

Second, consider cutting the number of steps between you and your purchases. If you order takeout from a local burger restaurant, calling them directly rather than ordering from an app like DoorDash could put more money into that restaurant’s pocket.

My colleague Vanessa Friedman wrote about ordering clothes directly from the designer, or an independent boutique, rather than from a big box store that takes a cut of that product’s sales.

If you do use an app like Instacart to hire someone to deliver or shop for you, please tip them what you can afford.

And third, think about the conditions for people packing and delivering what you buy online. Sally said Oiselle has made sure there’s more space between each worker at its warehouse, and it imposed cleaning and sanitation mandates.

We can’t necessarily tell what happens in the path from online order to our doorstep. If you’re not sure, maybe your purchase can wait. Puzzles are important if your toddler needs to stay entertained, but less so for me. I skipped them. There’s a trade-off, of course. My puzzle money might be someone else’s badly needed sales.

“If you can find ways to help individuals and smaller businesses, then the balance goes in favor of that,” said Ellis Jones, author of “The Better World Shopping Guide” and a sociology professor at the College of the Holy Cross.

I know not everyone has the money or brainpower right now to be choosy about what we buy and from whom. But Sally and I talked, too, about how it’s become easy to be a mindless shopper. Even before a pandemic, it was easy to scroll Instagram and buy something I didn’t need, or get deliveries every day from Amazon. Those choices have consequences in environmental harm and traffic congestion.

Now and in the future, our choices add up. Use your money to support a world you want.

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Apple and Google made a splash Friday by saying they would collaborate on technology for smartphones to tell us if we were recently in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus. Here’s what we know, and a lot of what we don’t know, about this pandemic-fighting tech:

Apple and Google are only creating a technology blueprint.

Apple and Google are creating a system that would be used by apps, which will have to be created by government health care authorities or others. Those apps could let people report their infections and enable contract tracing. (Look, a comic on how this infection tracing works.)

Not every American will agree to use one of these apps, but as my colleague Jennifer Valentino-DeVries noted on Twitter, these tracking apps can still be effective. Here’s a good read from a computer security researcher about the privacy concerns and technology limitations of what Apple and Google are proposing.

My colleagues also noted in this newsletter last week the difficulty of scaling back citizen surveillance once an emergency is over.

The technology element is just ONE pandemic-fighting step.

Automating some tracking of potentially infected people does not replace the traditional, labor-intensive work of public health investigators. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told NPR that there would need to be teams of people to monitor those who are sick or quarantined and advise anyone with whom they’ve had contact. Places like Massachusetts and San Francisco are preparing for these steps.

Slowing the spread of the coronavirus also requires testing many more Americans and getting results fast. There will need to be systems in place to make sure people who can’t leave their homes have food and medicine — and alternatives for people who can’t shelter in place easily.

  • China’s “Wailing Wall”: A social media account of Dr. Li Wenliang, who was threatened by Chinese authorities for warning about the spreading coronavirus and later died of the virus, has become a virtual grieving point. People traumatized by China’s outbreak leave messages about signs of spring, post photos of Dr. Li’s favorite snack and share their lingering fears, my colleague Li Yuan writes.

  • Really, maybe don’t try this at home. Erin Griffith, a Times technology reporter, cut her husband’s hair with the help of a stylist’s online video tutoring. It felt “a bit like learning to drive with both parents in the car,” Erin wrote. And there was blood.

  • Join us for a live conversation about tech and the coronavirus. On Wednesday at 4 p.m. Eastern time, my Times Opinion colleague Charlie Warzel and I are hosting a conference call to talk about the use of smartphone location data to fight the coronavirus and other aspects of using technology in this pandemic. Lend us your ears, and ask your burning questions. You can RSVP here.

What does a rock climber do when she’s stuck indoors? Turn everything at home into monkey bars. I would say don’t try this at home either, but there’s no way you can do any of this.

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