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Can Singles’ Day Be Sustainable?

November 12, 2019, 10:39 AM UTC

This is the web version of The Loop, Fortune’s weekly newsletter on the revolutions in sustainability. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Good morning.

A brief note to say that starting next week, The Loop will be sent out on Thursday morning instead. This change is because on Tuesdays I now edit Fortune’s latest newsletter, Business by Design, which I encourage you all to sign up for here.

Now, on with The Loop:

Yesterday was Singles’ Day in China—a quasi-anti-Valentine’s festival co-opted by retail giant Alibaba Group and spun into the world’s largest shopping festival. The scale of the yearly sale is astounding.

At just one-minute past midnight on November 11, i.e. the very beginning of Singles’ Day, the total value of goods processed through Alibaba’s various e-commerce platforms had already topped $1 billion. Little over six hours later, the figure was at $20 billion—more than predictions for Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Equally astonishing, however, is the amount of waste Singles’ Day generates. Last year e-commerce and logistics firms shipped 9.4 million tons of packaging, according to estimates from Greenpeace. By 2025, packaging could stack up to 41.3 million tons, the NGO warns.

This year Alibaba announced Singles’ Day would be “greener than ever” and has implemented schemes to encourage recycling, designating 75,000 locations across the country as drop-off stations for spent cardboard.

To incentivize recycling, shoppers will earn cash rewards or coupons for handing in their empty packages. Alibaba has had success in “gamifying” sustainable action before, most notably through the Ant Forest initiative.

The program—which Fortune honored in our 2017 Change the World list—rewards AliPay users for engaging in arguably sustainable behavior, such as paying bills online, by dishing out “green tokens.” When a shopper earns enough tokens, a tree is planted in their honor. So far 230 million users have contributed to the palnting of over 10 million trees.

Ant Financial—the fintech spinoff of Alibaba that operates AliPay and gives its name to Ant Forest—was recognized as a UN Champion of the Earth for the reforestation scheme just last October.

However, Dr Zhou Jinfeng, head of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation thinks the scheme is empty and told me he “feels sorry” knowing Ant Financial won such an award. Planting trees sounds good, but the real focus should be on preserving biodiversity, Zhou argues.

The real flaw with Alibaba’s initiatives to make Singles’ Day “green,” however, is that the shopping festival encourages throwaway consumerism and supports unsustainable retail practices. If Singles’ Day shoppers were only buying things to last, Alibaba sales wouldn’t be going up every year.

More below.

Eamon Barrett

Carbon Copy

Aussie rules. Two Australian states have declared a state of emergency as over 100 bushfires rage across the country. A prolonged drought and extreme heat is exacerbating the situation, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to answer a question on whether the extreme weather is linked to climate change. Morrison is a staunch advocate of coal mining, which is a key contributor to the nation’s economy. The PM has threatened that his government could outlaw eco-minded boycotts of industries related to mining. BBC

Power to the people. “The dominant discourse in climate change and energy transitions equates well-being to G.D.P., and we need to move beyond that,” Professor Narasimha Rao of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies tells the NYT. Rao founded the Decent Living Energy project to analyze the energy requirements of developing economies and cross-reference that need with the climate impact of improving living standards. Often, raising energy consumption and improving living standards are at odds. New York Times

Any more room in space? Space X launched a further 60 communication satellites into orbit yesterday. The scores of satellites are part of Musk’s Starlink project, intended to provide internet service to everyone on Earth. For a price. Scientists warn that cluttering near-space with satellites—a process already well underway—could interfere with astronomy and increase the risk of orbital collisions. SpaceX isn’t alone: Amazon is planning to launch tech into orbit, too. Nature

In The Loop

The Business Roundtable, Ranked: How Well Apple, IBM, and Amazon Actually Serve Stakeholders by Andrew Nusca

From In-House Jewelers’ Benches to Recycled Gems, Sustainable Business Practices Make Catbird Shine by Kate Dwyer

The Unconventional Methods Liquor Makers Are Taking to Be More Sustainable by John Kell

Consumers Say They Want More Sustainable Products. Now They Have the Receipts to Prove It by Renae Reints

Meddling Monarchs, Terrorism and Climate Change—Bankers Would Like Investors to Ignore These Concerns Looming Over Saudi Aramco IPO by Adrian Croft

Saudi Aramco Warns of ‘Climate Change Concerns’ in Its IPO Prospectus. It’s Not What You Think by David Meyer

Closing Number


Last week in BioScience, 11,000 scientists warned of “untold human suffering” due to the current climate emergency, which the authors and their peers link to “profoundly troubling signs from human activities,” especially the “excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle.” Why is this staggering warning a footnote in this newsletter? In part, it’s because I’m a week late to the news but, also, I’m jaded by leaders not heeding the warnings of scientists on climate change. Die-hard deniers, unfortunately, aren’t swayed by experts and data. Artists are trying another approach: here this music group is trying to put the message into a soundscape; in New York visual artist Maya Lin is planting a ghost forest.

This edition of The Loop was edited by Eamon Barrett. Find previous editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here.