Temu: the Ethical and Environmental Cost

temu logo

Temu is the newest kid on the block when it comes to uber-cheap online marketplaces.

Well, you’ve likely seen Temu hauls, adverts and influencers promoting Temu’s products on social media. Temu is using the popularity of short-form video content to get their brand into as many pockets and palms as possible. Its slogan, shop like a billionaire was heard in the iconic superbowl advert break not once but twice, leading it to become the most-downloaded app in America, followed by the UK when it launched in April this year.

Temu dispatches sellers’ products directly from China (skipping the middle man of retailers), with free shipping and plenty of money-off deals to catch people’s eye, offering a new-user bonus of free items, and even turning discounts into minigames. This appeals to teens, of course, but in a cost of living crisis, it’s no surprise that adult consumers are also drawn to the huge discounts. People are further drawn in with the ‘lightning deals’ and warnings of low stock to make a purchase, and quickly.

At first glance, it might be tempting to make an order. However, the environmental and ethical impact of Temu (and competitors like Wish, Shein, AliExpress and so on) cannot be ignored. Here’s the true cost of overseas discount online marketplaces.

Temu shipments come in plastic packaging, as most other retailers use. However, the products inside are also individually wrapped in plastic, as an order will most likely combine multiple products from multiple sellers. Temu have a minimum spend of £10, and with items as cheap as a few pence, shoppers are picking up lots of items in one order.

Many of the products on the site are produced from cheap, low-quality plastics, which is why they can afford to charge so little for them. Cheap plastic releases microplastics into our bodies and our waterways. Temu contributes to environmental degradation through excessive resource use and pollution.

flying airplane under clouds

Speaking of pollution – Temu ships their products directly from China to the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and much of Europe, meaning there is a high environmental cost of the marketplace.

Most of this is done by flight, which is why the shipping time is generally less than 10 days. Flights are a lot of worse than ocean shipping for pollution – long-haul flights emit 47 times more greenhouse gasses per ton every mile than ships do.

Although there are no official statistics on the number of sales, revenue was at around $700,000,000 just in the month of May, with the UK being the second-biggest consumer base after the US. Delivery drivers (Evri are the go-to delivery service for Temu) have gone online and said their vans and warehouses are full of bright orange Temu parcels. That’s a lot of flights from China to the UK and the rest of the world.

Prices that low means people have to be being exploited somewhere on the production line. In fact, in June, lawmakers warned consumers that there was a high possibility that products sold on Temu were produced from forced labour. It has been alleged that Temu violates the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Temu lacks a specific policy against goods made in Xinjiang, where evidence suggests forced labour may occur.

Even businesses in the UK have been found to be using cheap or forced labour – it can be difficult to monitor factories abroad for malpractice, and some companies are just concerned about profits rather than ethics. With overseas companies like Temu, it is even more difficult to look into working conditions due to a lack of jurisdiction, secretive production and the fact that Temu stocks products from a multitude of sellers.

Temu has stated that they have no responsibility of third-party sellers on their app, but did not deny the claims.

By undercutting prices on such a huge level, Temu ensures that they are consumers’ first point of call, rather than local businesses or other marketplaces. This is bad news for the UK economy, especially in hard financial times like the current climate. Local and national economies will suffer if we only buy from overseas.

Temu is stealing content directly from small businesses too. Multiple small businesses have come forward and stated that they have found their images and products for sale on Temu. Some have even ordered them and received worse quality knock-offs of their products. Artists are having their work stolen and placed on different items such as prints and clothing.

Not only UK businesses are suffering – Temu’s business model means they hold ‘reverse auctions’, where sellers bid to offer the lowest prices possible. Temu is squeezing small Chinese businesses dry, forcing them to take less profit if they want to sell on the app.

The combination of eye-catching images, quirky and cute products, misleading discounts (such as a countdown timer for free shipping that resets every day), daily ‘spins’, constant notifications, super cheap products, giant hauls on social media invoking FOMO – fear of missing out – and referral codes that lead to big discounts (making sharing with your friends encouraged) means consumers with the app are encouraged to buy, buy, buy… and buy again. The products are seemingly endless. Of course you needed that gel lint roller, and also those really cute earrings, and who doesn’t need a bag shaped like a frog? Temu survives off the energy of ‘why not? It’s cheap!’.

The products may be fun and interesting and seen online, but what purpose do they serve – did you really need them? Can you get similar things in your local shops or from small businesses? Will you use them once and forget they exist?

Overconsumption creates landfill. All the discarded gadgets, decoration and clothes we eventually throw away creates waste, as do most returns and unsold items. Most products listed on Temu are made to be disposed of – they aren’t recyclable, nor are they good quality enough to resell or donate. The only way we can reduce waste like this is if we stop buying it.

a smokestack emission of an industrial exhaust pipes

Temu claims they have a commitment to social responsibility and environmental sustainability. Apparently, they offset carbon emissions of each order to compensate for its footprint. No details were offered on how they do this.

Temu also said that they “encourage shoppers to purchase mindfully by asking them to combine small orders at checkout to reduce waste from excess packaging and deliveries.” Hmm.

Low-cost marketplaces like this can be a saviour for those struggling financially. The poorest among us still deserve treats – and some things on Temu will be practical and useful, and can be used for years if treated well. It’s important to remember that Temu, Wish and Shein may be someone’s only option, and we shouldn’t judge them for that.

If you’d like to buy from a small business instead of Temu, why not give Between Green a try? We have subscription boxes for monthly environmentally-friendly goodies or you can buy from our shop.

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