Belgian Politician Calls for Abolition of Internet Shopping

It's hollowing out Main Streets and hurting employees. Maybe this is worth discussing.

Interior of Amazon Warehouse
How does Main Street compete with that?.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

Paul Magnette, a Belgian politician and leader of the socialist party, is calling for the country to ban internet shopping. His main objection is the treatment of workers, telling Flemish newspaper Humo:

“Let Belgium become a country without e-commerce. I don’t think e-commerce is progress but social and ecological degradation. Why do we have to let workers work in those warehouses at night? Because people want to buy around the clock and have their parcels at home within 24 hours. Can we really not wait two days for a book?”

The Guardian reports he also complained that "current trends were hollowing out urban centers." According to a separate editorial in Humo, the idea has not been received uncritically.

"Since then, a lot of ink has been spilled about the proposition that Belgium should become 'the first country without e-commerce', with real shops instead of web shops. Economist Geert Noels called this as unfeasible as it is undesirable: 'Abolishing e-commerce is a total utopia. You can't stop that. Just like twenty or thirty years ago you couldn't stop the Decathlons [a French sports retailer] or IKEAs.'"

Wondering how this was being received in Belgium, we asked Adrian Hiel, who does policy and communications for Energy Cities from Brussels, who tells Treehugger:

"If anything it has been a source of mockery from much of the rest of the political spectrum. Paul Magnette likes to be the centre of attention. But trying to outlaw e-commerce would have to break an unimaginable amount of laws which his region wouldn't have the authority to do. He is a proud socialist and he clearly is coming at this from a workers' perspective but as an election issue, it would be very unpopular. Belgians love ordering stuff online just like everyone else."
Our neighborhood main street
Seen on our Main Street: Payday lenders galore.

Lloyd Alter

But figuring out ways to keep our Main Streets—or, as they call them in Europe, High Streets—viable in the face of online shopping is a serious problem that we have discussed often on Treehugger. Hiel continues:

"I sympathize with Magnette. The growth of e-commerce is a thousand small injustices that we will live to regret when there is nothing but nail salons and payday loan shops. I don't know what the right policy response is but it needs to be a bit more refined than a ban."

I don't know what the right response is either. We have had some ideas. In an earlier post "The Future of Main Street, Post-Pandemic," I quoted Sharon Woods of the Public Square on how to fight back against Amazon and rebuild our streets by learning from online shopping.

Consumers are most loyal to stores with a physical location that also offer online and phone order delivery, promote through social media, and collect online sales. Businesses that offer online services today will stand a much better chance of attracting patrons back into their brick-and-mortar establishments in the future.

Katherine Martinko, Treehugger's senior editor, has also described how she supports her local Main Street and found it faster than online shopping during the pandemic and plans to continue:

"I'm realizing that if it's possible to support local 'Main Street' businesses at a time like this, it's possible to support them anytime. We really need to stop making excuses for why ordering stuff online from faraway monster corporations is a better option than going to nearby business owners."
Reoccupy Main Street

Reoccupy Main Street

Perhaps Magnette is on to something, looking for radical solutions to the problems stemming from lousy warehouse jobs and the troubles on Main Street. A decade ago on Treehugger, we were big fans of the Reoccupy Main Street campaign, looking at more radical solutions such as seriously taxing online retailers and even banning them for their predatory business practices. At the time one might have considered and laughed at the idea of shooting Jeff Bezos into space.

In a more recent post, "What is the Future of Our Main Streets?," a city official reminded us: "These avenues were once populated by business owners who lived above their stores and owned the building. Now, many small business owners lease space." The stores are owned by investors and developers waiting to turn them into condos, and all you get on the ground floor are banks and drug store chains. Every year there seems to be less Main Street to actually reoccupy.

As Hiel reminds us, Magnette likes to be the center of attention. Canadian readers may remember how he single-handedly torpedoed the Free Trade deal between Canada and the European Union and became "the man who made Canada weep." His position on internet shopping may be just as controversial—and perhaps a little out of touch with the reality of the times.

But in the meantime, our farmland gets eaten up for giant distribution warehouses while our Main Street storefronts are vacant and papered over. If we can't ban internet shopping, we can at least revise the tax structure so that Amazon actually pays some, while the small shopkeeper pays less. At least level the playing field.