There can’t be many of us outside of Donald Trump supporters who don’t recognise something has to be done about the environment. We owe it to the planet we have used and abused for centuries since the beginning of the first industrial revolution to put something back if only because it’s the only one we have got. And while the first revolution of coal , iron and steel began the exploitation of resources on an industrial scale, the current digital one has enabled technology to reach into every corner of the earth with uncertain consequences.
The blast furnace, for example, was really useful for smelting metal into tools, and then shapes and structures and on to rails that would carry trains around the world, but it was also very handy for making canons. Almost all revolutions tend to have good and bad consequences in equal or unequal measure, and the digital one is no different.
The fact that we can exchange information, money and goods around the world is a convenience that has a dark side when the market place is not a level playing field, and the immediate purchase price does not reflect the actual cost to the overall economy, and the environment. All of us who retail direct to customers have had to contend with being undercut by on line competition over the last decade. Many big brand names on the high street have gone out of business. And the smug financial advisors who say we just have to react to changing demand don’t factor in the real long term results of this self serving trend.
As long as there is same day, next day, and most important “ free” delivery we are on a slippery slope. Like the fabled free lunch, it doesn’t exist, and someone or something, is picking up the eventual tab. I can’t actually put my finger on a time when people suddenly realised they needed a fridge freezer before lunchtime, but I rather suspect it was more marketing led than popular demand.
Maybe it started when all shops started opening on a Sunday, rather than those allowed selling “essentials”. Then you had to plan your food shop for the weekend instead of saving up to do a massive raid on a hypermarket. Certainly around the same time the bean counters who had taken over the direction much of British industry and business came up with the concept of just in time. No need to order stock in advance and have dead money sitting on the shelf if you could order it and get in despatched only when you needed it. Of course that’s all very well but you are dependant upon it actual being produced in time, let alone delivered. If something should interrupt that process then the whole system grinds to a halt.
Today it’s not only the finance managers who can demand such service, but every customer who had a mobile phone. It is this personal preference which no one really thought through which is really at the heart of the digital economy dilemma. I was penning some notes on this column in a bar as I often find the best place to reflect upon the world, when someone a few feet away who had been dabbing anxiously at his mobile phone announced “great that will be with me tomorrow morning !” This was 10pm and someone, somewhere was going to have to pick it, pack it, and push it on a truck that someone else was going to have to drive somewhere just to meet a probably artificial deadline. Was that really so great ?
This is the insanity of the situation we are all in, trying to do our little bit to be green and planet friendly by recycling our cardboard packaging, while at the same time everyone is creating more of it and moving it in ever increasing circles. Despite the sophistication of digital technology it seems the sheer scale of the problem is beyond any practical solution to rationalise or co-ordinate all the thousands of individual deliveries.
We are in the centre of Brighton, which like most cities has a major congestion problem due to just too many vehicles of all sizes being funnelled into roads designed in Victorian times for a relative handful of horse and carts. The council’s solution seems very simple: reduce the size of the roads, and the number that can be used, then the traffic won’t be so bad because no one will want to drive in.
This simplistic approach to traffic management has one major flaw - when it was drawn up no account was made of the increasing amount of delivery vehicles from scooters delivering pizza to articulated lorries carrying avocados to so-called convenience stores. This entirely unregulated tide has become an unstoppable tsunami. What they didn’t know, or even bothered to find out, is that the average major delivery company, and there are dozens of them, makes around 150 drops in the city each day, and some of them are time sensitive so the lorry may traverse the central road system many times around a tortuous one-way system. And that’s just parcel deliveries. Add on the major supermarkets being serviced by their trucks and their customers being served by home delivery, plus all the little independent providers, suppliers, the brewer’s drays - you can make a list that would fill half of this column.
This must be the same in every major town in the country, and we are going to have to get used to traffic regulation, congestion charges and the like, all of which are simply token gestures in real terms because discouraging people from driving cars isn’t doing anything to curb customer demand and purchasing habits.
This isn’t a political rant as politicians of all colour have hand in creating the mess, from closing most railway branch lines, pushing deliveries onto ever inadequate roads and generally letting the freight transport infrastructure strangle itself and then blaming the users who have no other choice. But I would vote for someone who has the guts to stand up and tell voters they just can’t have what exactly they want, when they want it. But I can’t see that happening anytime soon.