Proper Gander – Temu’s temerity

In the market of online marketplaces, Amazon and eBay’s dominance has recently been challenged by young upstart Temu. Like its competitors, Temu offers a dizzyingly wide range of commodities such as clothing, household items and jewellery which can be delivered to your door in just a few clicks. Since its launch in September 2022, Temu has rapidly expanded to having half a billion users worldwide. A quarter of the British population has downloaded its app, encouraged by social media advertising and influencer recommendations.

Temu’s business model is to be a platform for thousands of other companies to sell their products direct from China to customers worldwide. It doesn’t have enormous depots like Amazon does, and therefore avoids associated costs, allowing it to charge less for its wares. Of course, this cheapness has come at a price. Complaints about the quality and safety of Temu’s products attracted the attention of Channel 4’s Dispatches, whose documentary aimed to tell The Truth About Temu. Predictably, the programme was too brief to give more than an outline of each problem, nor explain the wider context of how such companies fit with capitalism.

Reporter Ellie Flynn buys some items through Temu to check how they compare with the way they’re advertised. Some products come with false claims that they have been certified as safe by recognised organisations, and a baby walker harness purchased for £2.68 snaps within seconds when tested with a bag of sand. Flynn looks at news reports of people who have lived through tragedies after ordering items from Temu: a woman whose house burnt down due to a faulty Tablet and a girl who suffered burns from glue when applying fake fingernails. Flynn arranges for toxicology tests on some items she has bought, including a ‘gold’ necklace priced at £2.97 which is revealed to have twice the legal amount of lead and 27 times more cadmium than permitted. She also orders saw blades and BB guns without the website checking her age. Temu replies to these concerns with corporate-speak statements that it has withdrawn some products pending checks and that it maintains ‘rigorous quality controls’, although insufficient safeguards appear to be in place.

Hoping that low prices are enough of a distraction from risks isn’t the only approach used by Temu to manipulate us into buying. Its app is designed to entice us into spending more time, and therefore more money on the site. Flash sales, mini games, prizes and deals are jazzed up with colourful, cartoonish graphics. Emerging technology consultant Nina Jane Patel says that the app is ‘gamifying the shopping experience, but on steroids’. The aim is to make buying entertaining in a way closer to playing games and gambling than just swiping through a catalogue. Flynn arranges for her brain activity to be measured while using Temu’s app, and compares these results with what’s recorded while shopping from Amazon and playing a casino app. When using Temu, there were spikes of pleasure-related stimulation recorded, presumably when a particularly alluring bargain was found, a pattern with similarities to when the gambling app was being played.

This experiment shows how the capitalist system conditions our attitude to our possessions. In a society of scarcity and rationing through money, we’re likely to react with a buzz of satisfaction, even if it’s near-subliminal, when we acquire something, whether by shopping or gambling. Temu has exploited this learned response with lucrative results, but in a way which pushes at the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable practice, at least in the UK. Iain Duncan Smith, in his role as Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm has been investigating the implications of Temu being based on a gambling-like system, such as how this can lead to addictive behaviour.

In the documentary, Smith says that the personal data gathered when people buy through Temu has to be shared with the Chinese government under its National Security Law. This data would then be passed on to the state’s intelligence service to sift through for anything nefariously useful. Temu denies sending information to the Chinese government and says that its data policy is on its website, which Flynn can’t find.

How much notice will the Chinese state take of the UK’s regulations about the use of data? Similarly, the UK’s health and safety laws are difficult to enforce when products are coming in from overseas. While this demonstrates how national barriers add a layer of complications to how goods are distributed in capitalism, the issue isn’t only in China’s awkward relationship with Western countries. Although all the vendors selling through Temu are based in China, Temu itself isn’t wholly a Chinese business. Its parent company, PDD Holdings has its headquarters in South Korea and its ‘legal domicile’ is in Ireland. Despite any links to the Chinese state, Temu is not rooted in only one country, reminding us that its owners in the capitalist class sit above national borders.

And it’s the profit-hungry motives of the capitalist class which really drive Temu’s approach. Its products are sold as cheaply as possible to maximise the potential number of customers, lured in by marketing and held onto using gambling’s techniques. A profit margin can be maintained if costs are kept low by cutting corners during manufacturing and distribution. The quality or suitability of the end product isn’t an important consideration, nor is the waste of resources in shipping goods across continents, nor is the wellbeing of the staff involved. Temu represents some of the worst aspects of capitalist society, but this is what has made it a success, in capitalist terms: PDD Holdings is worth an estimated £170 billion to its owners and shareholders. To the rest of us, it’s an example of how capitalism turns what we need and want into shoddy commodities made to enrich the elite.


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