Last Christmas, my sister had one prohibition on her wishlist for her Secret Santa: Nothing should be purchased for her on Amazon.com. Other than that, there were some helpful suggestions about things she wanted. I never asked her directly why the caveat about where items were purchased. I didn’t do so because it seemed obvious that there were a number of reasons a person would not want to support Amazon.
In his book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, Alec MacGillis fleshes out those reasons in a figurative sense as he chronicles real people caught in the cogs of the Amazon machine. The Atlantic has a comprehensive piece on the book. Before you get to the individual level, though, there are some startling statistics that the article provides.
- Amazon reaps fully half of what people in this country spend online.
- It is the second largest private employer in the US, behind Walmart.
- Amazon, along with Walmart, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of an arrangement that allows food stamps to be used for online groceries, bringing in large amounts of government money.
There are more stats to be had (in the piece and elsewhere), but I don’t want to push the boundaries of fair use. These three points give you plenty upon which to ruminate, though.
From a human interest perspective, MacGillis tells the stories of Amazon warehouse workers who face working conditions most of us would consider unfair, at the least. One worker he chronicles, who used to work at a Bethlehem Steel plant in Baltimore, ended up working at an Amazon warehouse on the same site for less than half the wages, at age 69, after the steel plant closed down. If nothing else, he enjoyed the continuity of working in the same place, until his supervisor threatened to dock his already meager pay over a bathroom break and he quit.1 Warehouse workers are not the only ones with problems getting bathroom time. It’s a particular problem with Amazon’s delivery drivers, as well. Another worker MacGillis profiles stays in his basement at home, because of the high risk of COVID infection at the Amazon warehouse, so that he doesn’t put his family at risk.
In pieces critical of Amazon, we are usually reminded that these stories are set amid the backdrop of the massive and inhuman wealth of former CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, who’s fortune is second only to that of Elon Musk. The contrasts could not be greater between the majority of the workers in the company and those at the very top.
It Used To Be Simpler
A few years ago, it was easy for me to feel like I was doing my duty as a conscientious consumer by avoiding Walmart. They were the big box bad guy putting smaller stores out of business and then hiring the employees for lower wages. They were the company employing many people part time to avoid giving them benefits. They were the ones forcing local companies to outsource labor in order to keep their products on store shelves.2 Walmart wore their thrift like a badge of honor, but the extremes to which they went to save money sucked the life out of the very areas where their customers lived. It wasn’t hard to wage a personal fight against the stingy retail giant, though, at least not in most metro areas. There were other places where the same goods could be had, even if they were to be had at a higher price.
It’s more difficult to avoid Amazon than it was Walmart. With my health conditions, I need to get supplements I have a hard time finding elsewhere. I have both a Home Depot and a Lowe’s within a few miles of my house, but I still occasionally need to find home improvement items at Amazon.
There aren’t any true competitors to Amazon’s Kindle ebooks ecosystem. The closest one is Barnes and Noble’s Nook. It has been clear for quite some time that B&N isn’t really serious about their ebook readers, though. The last time I checked, you couldn’t even buy the latest version of their ereader, the GlowLight 3 on their website. When I had a Nook, there were significant software problems. For instance, sometimes turning the page caused it to skip dozens of pages and you would have to go back and find your spot. The system would crash fairly often. Besides the technical issues with the device, it was difficult for others to gift books to me. The company’s efforts in the area always felt half-baked, an afterthought adjunct to their actual business of selling paper.
There are no other e-ink ebook readers, besides the Kindle, on which you can read books checked out from the library through the app Libby. This means if you have something like a Nook, you are even more locked in to the B&N ecosystem than you are Amazon’s ecosystem when you have a Kindle. Unfortunately, this is a problem that the Nook’s liberal sideloading abilities don’t solve.
Much has been made recently about Amazon’s abrupt removal of the book When Harry Became Sally by Ryan T. Anderson. I haven’t read a sentence of this book (and since I mainly get books on my Kindle, it’s doubtful I will), but it was concerning that Amazon didn’t even follow their own policies when deciding to take the book off of their site. As Rob Vischer points out on the Mirror of Justice blog , this move, and others commonly attributed to “cancel culture,” wouldn’t be so concerning without the enormous clout that the big tech companies wield.
But what if Amazon decides to stop selling a controversial book? Amazon – like other Big Tech companies – doesn’t just participate in the market; in a real sense, they function as gatekeepers to the market. When those gatekeepers act to remove certain people or ideas from circulation, we should be concerned. (That doesn’t mean it should never happen – e.g., I don’t think Amazon should sell a do-it-yourself kit for building a dirty bomb at home.) In my view, the power of Big Tech is what makes today’s “cancel culture” debates relevant.
Amazon as a business can decide what it does and does not want to sell. Vischer is right, though, that it is in the context of their market dominance that moves like this become concerning.
To come back briefly to the gap between worker and CEO pay, no company does a better job showcasing this than Amazon. Bezos may no longer be CEO, but he’s still the face of the franchise and his space voyages made on the backs of the overworked and underpaid do not go unnoticed. Bezos may have thanked Amazon workers, but his wave looked like it had a middle finger extended. The spectacle of Bezos burning money for rocket fuel while people go without basics in this country is abhorrent, especially during a pandemic.
I'm constantly asking myself: What is a conscientious consumer to do? Those who have disentangled themselves from the great ecommerce beast, please let me know the process you went through. I'm open to even ways to partially extricate myself and feel good about contributing to a healthier retail, publishing and working environment.
Update: I'm going to have to absorb this post from Jason Burk, which details how he was able to make himself less dependent on Amazon.
He had been peeing in the corner of the warehouse to avoid the strict bathroom time limits. ↩︎
Local textile company Pillowtex was forced by Walmart to offshore their production and close their local plants. ↩︎