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e-trade under microscope

April 2000

A year-long inquiry into the social and environmental impact of the growth in e-commerce has been launched by Patricia Hewitt, junior minister at the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry.

The Digital Futures inquiry, co-ordinated by the UK sustainable development body Forum for the Future, will report in 2001 with an ‘agenda for a sustainable digital economy’ that will make recommendations for business, government and local authorities.

A number of UK organizations have given financial backing to the project, including British Telecommunications, BP Amoco, Kingfisher, Nationwide Building Society, NatWest Group, Sun Microsystems, The Post Office and Unilever.

Tony Shaw, chief executive of NatWest’s corporate banking division, said the project needed to look at the dangers of rushing headlong into e-trading. ‘We are committed to ensuring that our corporate customers are prepared for the challenges of this new [electronic] world, but we recognise that we have a wider responsibility to harness the power of the internet to promote wider social and environmental goals,’ he said.

Hewitt said e-commerce had ‘the potential to reduce the resource intensity of many products and services’, but added: ‘It is important that we assess the benefits and problems in a systematic way.’

The project will involve government departments, companies and non-governmental organizations, including the Cabinet Office, the South West Regional Development Agency, the Demos think tank, the Green Alliance pressure group and the social finance group New Economics.

It will concentrate on:

how e-commerce will affect patterns of community and social interaction

energy use and whether e-commerce can help the UK meet its climate change targets

how internet shopping will affect transport and distribution

how e-commerce may shape future urban planning.

Digital Futures will run throughout 2000, with a final report due in early 2001.

James Wilsdon, senior policy advisor at Forum for the Future, said: ‘The jury is still out on whether the digital economy will evolve into a powerful ally of sustainable development or a spur to greater social exclusion and environmental destruction.’




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