An inclusive, eco-friendly online economy
After she retired as a public school teacher in San Pablo, my late grandmother Rosita started selling tamarind candies—Rosing’s Champoy—and to her dying days took pride in her entrepreneurship that has led to her products—which have since expanded to include peanut brittle—being sold in different parts of the country, including in SM supermarkets. Two years ago, she passed away, leaving my grandfather Basilio and second cousin Vikki Torres to continue her modest business, which supported the livelihoods of a handful of people.
The pandemic brought their small-scale business to a halt: The pasalubong centers and the restaurants that ordered from them shut down, and with international travel held in abeyance, they couldn’t count on their balikbayan customers either.
Such was the case for months until they decided to sell the products online. “This is where things are headed,” Ate Vikki told me. “We should at least try our luck.” And so last month, with the help of other relatives and a consultant, they opened their Lazada store, in time for the “11.11 sale.”
My relatives are among the many Filipinos turning to the online economy to rescue their businesses—or keep themselves afloat by starting new ones.
Thankfully, it is easy to open an online store. While it took a lot of hard work (and paperwork) for my Lola to be able to sell her candies in SM, it took only days to set up the business’ presence in Lazada. It is similarly easy to do the same in Shopee, which is why many businesses often have parallel stores on both platforms.
In terms of capital, it’s likewise easier: Unlike a physical store in a mall, for example, that will require months of rental advance and deposits, not to mention the cost of actually building the store, an online store will only take some elementary skills in layout, photography, and web development.
Finally, in terms of profit, the minimal commission and transaction fees allow sellers to offer products at a price point competitive against other sources.
All of the above are liberating for small and medium enterprises, giving them a lifeline during the pandemic and likely beyond, with the online economy seemingly poised to become only more and more dominant.
On the other hand, it is also easy to see how the online economy can exclude as much as it includes. We may have iconoclastic feelings against big corporations like SM, but will Shopee and Lazada be any different should they continue their growth? Empowering to SMEs the online economy may be—but what of the riders and workers who bear much of the effort, but are no less contractual and vulnerable as mall (non-)employees?
The challenge, then, for our country and society is to make sure that everyone benefits from the online economy—from the entrepreneurs to the consumers and the people in between, especially the riders to whom we have outsourced the need to go out of our homes, with them bearing the risk for minimal pay. Of course, the onus is on the online sellers themselves to act on this equity considerations, but the government, too, has a role, not least of which is to ensure and facilitate internet access throughout the country, given how it’s become fundamental not just to our social lives but also to economic participation.
Another challenge is to make the online economy environment-friendly. Alas, today all our individual packages come with layer upon layer of bubble wrap, and while this may be demand-driven (e.g., customers’ view that the more packaging, the better), can we not come up with solutions to reduce the materials needed? Can we not apply the principles “reduce, reuse, recycle”—in that order? Proven measures include grouping packages to minimize packaging, Amazon-style; using alternative packaging materials (e.g., EcoNest Philippines’ cassava bags and other products); and scaling up recycling practices and capabilities. Surely there are more ways, and I’m sure our environmental scientists and online sellers themselves have much to say in this important conversation.
Meanwhile, I would like to end this piece by calling on Shopee, Lazada, and other online platforms to pursue, support, and encourage plastic-free options within their ecosystems; for consumers to clamor for it, and for all of us—scientists, citizens, entrepreneurs, and government agencies—to work together to ensure that the online economy is inclusive, sustainable, and friendly to the environment.
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