While we’re on the subject of commerce, it’s worth revising a couple of my longstanding resolutions with regards to online purchases. If nothing else, exposing my hypocrisy at least makes me feel less like I’m being wilfully misleading and more like a whisky priest. A rakish, romantic whisky priest; less Father Jack and more Father Peter Clifford.
The lure of fast, free delivery, at a time when the indifference of a number of high-street shops was turning the process of buying presents into an unalloyed misery, encouraged me to recommence shopping at Amazon last Christmas. I actually had the luxury—which I thought the free market would provide as a given—of presents I purchased being delivered in time, and to the right location—the home of my parents-in-law where we were spending the festive season—with very little fuss. Yet I always felt rather guilty about buying from a company which claws back tax through Channel Islands wheezes.
However, just as when I last fell out with Amazon, it took the CEO Jeff Bezos himself to reawaken my thorough dislike of the company. His recent smug-soaked, front-page letter to the consumer, pleading for them to buy their bloody Kindles, made me want to simultaneously cringe with embarrassment and vomit with loathing. Here’s a tip, Jeff: if you claim that you and/or Amazon love to encourage reading, then why not help promote literacy both in adults and the young by getting your company to pay more fucking tax, to help fund a decent education system? Anyway, I’ve not purchased anything else from Amazon this year, apart from two clip-on lights for around a fiver which a local independent electrical store refused to order in, so that they might sell them to me for considerably more. At least I don’t think they ended up transported by any kind of Starfish, Indigo or otherwise.
Speaking of local independents, though, I’ve rather more permanently fallen off the wagon of digital downloads. j4 very kindly pointed me at a couple of resources for best-guess estimates of different forms of music distribution, including this academic paper comparing several purchase scenarios. While it’s often hard to find comparisons to bear the weight of a decisive argument, if you’re using carbon calculations which involve complex behaviour and network effects, I’ve decided that to some extent I’m going to continue buying from our local independent for three reasons:
- I always cycle or walk to the local shops, reducing the carbon impact of the physical purchase by over a half.
- I tend to burn digital purchases to CDR, as I still haven’t worked out an easy way of playing digital music without having the high-energy iMac running. At a power consumption of around 115W (compared to 10-20W for my CD player) that suggests about ten hours of playing makes digital-only (no CDR) as energy-inefficient as a high-street purchase
- Rapture, Witney’s local independent music store, is one of the best shops, of any stripe, in any city, I’ve ever bought things in.
As the first two reasons reduce the originally obvious comparison of a factor of 8 (3200g/400g) to a little over 2 (1330g/640g), then the question becomes a bit more nuanced. What’s worth spending carbon on, and what savings are more important?
The ideal scenario would be for the local independent to start offering downloads to a memory stick in the shop, and I’d gladly see part of the high-street store turned into a locked-down workstation, with maybe a coffee machine for while you wait, if that were possible. I don’t really like having CDs and their concomitant bloody boxes these days. Storage of the things has long been awkward and is fast becoming difficult, especially as the music industry tries more and more to sell you CDs in things which aren’t quite the same shape and size as would fit snugly into jewel-case storage solutions.
But that brings us to the third point. Although employees at the store have suggested that they were sadly burned, and made rather skeptical of the whole idea, by being early adopters of some early, ill-fated digital music reselling (itself promoted unwisely by a multinational name, I’m told); yet Witney’s music store remains an open-minded, lively and exciting purveyor of sonic entertainment. Of all the places that might offer something as modern and exciting as in-store digital music downloads, it’s the most likely candidate to take a punt and do so.
Patronising a local music independent might not be the absolutely most carbon-efficient way right now to obtain my music, but doing so at least occasionally might count as an investment in local infrastructure, right? Right? And such a long-term investment, with wise development, can lead eventually to carbon savings: think of buying fruit and veg from a local farmer. Right?
OK, yes: partly it’s a selfish decision; I like my local independent record store. But it’s a selfish decision taken with the full knowledge of its carbon impact, and will probably limit the number of times I do it far more than if I were buying album after album via digital means. And in ten years’ time I’d rather be getting my digital fix from a local, physical shop—maybe over a coffee and a bun rather than from aisles of CD boxes and other clutter, but nonetheless talking to people who love music, who concern themselves with its art and its craft—than from a faceless, antisocial, tax-avoiding multinational, which can only tell me about a particular album that people who purchased it also purchased albums I’ve purchased in the past.
Besides, digital downloading can have unintended carbon-heavy side effects, like encouraging CEOs to spend their spare time trying to fire things into space. Just ask Jeff Bezos, a Dan Dare for our time.