Is it Ethical to Buy Nonessential Items During Pandemic?
Sun, April 18, 2021

Is it Ethical to Buy Nonessential Items During Pandemic?


To reduce the risk of Covid-19 for everyone, it is important to work together. / Photo by Drazen Zigic via Shutterstock


Retail companies Target, Costco, Walmart and grocery chains in some parts of the US have been barred from selling nonessential items since early April to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and reduce foot traffic. Local governments have even directed these stores to empty the shelves of nonessential items, including electronics and clothing. But these restrictions were not implemented in other areas. Is it okay for shoppers to buy nonessential items during a pandemic?


Coronavirus ethicist discusses buying non-essential items

Georgetown University’s associate professor of philosophy Dr. Karen Stohr, Ph.D., who is also a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, explained via Washingtonian magazine that making ethical decisions during a pandemic requires that we all have to think beyond our situation. To reduce the risk of Covid-19 for everyone, it is important to work together.

Although it is helpful for businesses if some people spend extra money, it also puts the workers at the extra risk of getting sick. The welfare of the workers should be a priority in such a case. She cited the Amazon employees who tested positive for Covid-19 that led to a protest in the company’s warehouse in March. Other workers who are concerned about getting infected held signs that read, “Money come and go but health is ‘irreplaceable.’” 

Stohr said that those evets made it clear that people’s online purchasing habits can put others in a dangerous situation. She believes it is important that workers will still have their jobs but it also matters that their work is performed as safely as possible.


Necessities v. optional extras

It is important to distinguish the necessities from optional extras to know that what we are buying is important. In the US, many non-essential businesses have been closed, including those selling slippers and dumbbells. However, it is not altogether easy to pin down what is necessary for a person. Parents working at home during a pandemic may find toys and games a necessity so that their young children will be occupied for a few hours. Exercise tools likewise contribute to people’s mental and physical health so it could be reasonable to buy dumbbells amidst the stay-at-home orders. Only shoppers themselves can decide whether the items they are buying are essential.



She mentioned the two things that people should consider. First, know whether the purchasing behavior is clogging up the supply chain pipeline or delaying the deliveries of the necessary supplies to people who need them quickly. In March, retail giant Amazon even informed the public that it would temporarily prioritize medical supplies, household staples, and other essential product categories to respond to the increasing demand from the Covid-19 outbreak.



Distribution of risk

The second consideration is the distribution of risk. In our society, some people bear a higher risk of Covid-19 than others. Healthcare providers, grocery employees, restaurant delivery personnel, and Instacart workers have an increased risk of infection while working. Those lucky enough to earn while working at home during the pandemic and have the opportunity to purchase items online need to ask themselves whether they bear a “fair share of the collective risk” or if their comfort comes at a high price to others.

For people ordered to stay at home, it is a great help to purchase groceries and other items online. But what happens if the delivery windows of Instacart is scarce? The delivery window refers to the delivery time slots on a given day. Before the pandemic, same-day orders are within the two-hour delivery window. However, demand surged during the pandemic and the time slots are booked almost immediately or days in advance. Some shoppers cannot even place orders because the delivery schedules are booked up.

The coronavirus ethicist opined that those who do not belong to the special risk category should save the delivery times for the immunocompromised and elderly neighbors or ER nurses and first responders who are self-isolating between their shifts to protect others from Covid-19.



While there is no easy answer for whether it’s okay to buy nonessential items online or not, Stohr said we all have the responsibility to contemplate the effects of our purchasing behavior. She encouraged to, as much as possible, limit online shopping for items that are not necessary or opt to make purchases from firms that commit to the safety of their employees. These are firms that offer health insurance, sick leaves, and health protections to their workers. Do they donate to other organizations that offer direct aid to individuals who have been laid off?



Digital buyers worldwide

Dropshipping platform Oberlo shares that the number of digital buyers rose from 1.32 billion in 2014 to 1.92 billion in 2019. This year, one out of every four people will become an online shopper. This statistic should not come as a surprise since more people have become connected to the internet, making online shopping increasingly convenient.

Mobile shopping has also been on the rise. Nearly half of consumers purchase on mobile than in-store.


Local governments have even directed these stores to empty the shelves of nonessential items, including electronics and clothing. / Photo by sasirin pamai via Shutterstock


Shift to online purchases due to Covid-19 pandemic

As of May 6, 32% of respondents in the US said they deliberately availed of restaurant delivery or takeaway services online instead of offline because of the pandemic. Some 17% of respondents in the UK and 12% in Germany are in a similar situation.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents from the US, 20% from the UK, and 9% from Germany said they purchased hygiene products, such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper, online instead of offline in the same period.

Other products or services deliberately purchased online instead of offline because of the pandemic are food and drink delivery (US: 31%, UK: 27%, and Germany: 9%),  household cleaning products (US: 28%, UK: 17%, and Germany: 8%), clothing (US:21%, UK:15%, and Germany: 23%), games (US: 15%, UK: 9%, and Germany: 11%), books (US: 15%, UK: 13%, and Germany: 14%), hobby supplies (US: 13%, UK: 10%, and Germany: 10%), and consumer electronics, household appliances, furniture (9% in the three countries covered by the survey).

When we are contemplating whether to order nonessential deliveries, it is important to ask if we are protecting others in doing so or not. The frustrations and fear of factory workers underscore the labor of transportation, shipping, and packaging to make deliveries to our doorstep possible.