Are you a bad person if you shop on Amazon?

Time to get off the conveyor belt?
Time to get off the conveyor belt?
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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Amazon Prime Day is on.

The sales run from 3pm ET today (July 16) until 3am ET on July 18. That’s 36 hours for Amazon shoppers to buy discounted Echo Looks, Puma shoes, Sony noise-cancelling headphones, and twerking Jibo robots.

At the same time, thousands of Amazon workers in Europe have threatened to disrupt the buying festivities with demonstrations to demand better working conditions. Warehouse workers in Spain walked out today to protest an increase in working hours and elimination of bonuses, CNBC reported. Workers in Germany and Poland are also planning Prime Day strikes.

“Amazon is a fair and responsible employer,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement on the protests, adding that the company is committed to “positive working conditions and a caring and inclusive environment.”

The contrast between exhilarated consumers and disaffected workers isn’t new for Amazon, but Prime Day has thrown it into stark relief. So as the remaining hours tick forward, it’s a good time to ask: Are you a bad person if you shop on Amazon?

The case for shopping on Amazon

Amazon is the ultimate in consumer convenience.

For $119 a year, Prime members gain access to free two-day shipping on over 100 million items (plus free same-day shipping in some zip codes), streaming Prime music and video, free check-outs from the Kindle library, shopping benefits with Prime wardrobe, Prime-exclusive discounts at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market, and unlimited photo storage with Prime photos—among other benefits.

Toilet paper, headphones, air conditioners, Jenga—Amazon will bring all these things to your door in two days or less, if you subscribe to Prime. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in his 2016 letter to shareholders, “We want Prime to be such a good value, you’d be irresponsible not to be a member.”

Amazon has invested considerable resources in Prime, and it’s easy to see why. In the US, an estimated 53% of households, or 60 million people, subscribe to Prime. Those Prime members make up about two-thirds of total Amazon shoppers, according to research from investment firm Cowen, and make about 3.5 purchases per month, compared to two purchases a month for non-Prime shoppers.

Even for customers without Prime, the case for Amazon is compelling. Amazon’s sheer volume of stuff makes it the proverbial Everything Store, with many of those items sold cheaper online than you’d find in a brick-and-mortar store or on another e-commerce site. In a survey Quartz conducted of 2,752 readers across 63 countries in November and December 2017, 41% of respondents said they checked prices on Amazon “all the time” before making a purchase on another site, and 31% said they checked Amazon’s prices “frequently.”

Everyone likes a discount. Who can fault consumers for taking Amazon up on all it has to offer?

The case against shopping on Amazon

It takes a lot of work to keep the Amazon’s machine running efficiently, and the company has repeatedly been accused of mistreating its labor force.

In April, a reporter who went undercover as an Amazon worker said workers who made deliveries from a warehouse in the UK were peeing in bottles instead of the toilet, because they feared taking bathroom breaks. In June, a group of employees at an Amazon warehouse in Minnesota alleged they had experienced dehydration, exhaustion, and injuries working for Amazon without air conditioning. Other Amazon workers in both Europe and the US told Business Insider they were treated like robots and could be penalized for talking to coworkers, getting a drink of water, or taking too long to find a package.

Some of these workers are also struggling to get by. Amazon’s median wage in 2017 was $28,446, according to the company’s annual proxy statement—a bit less than the 2017 federal poverty line for a family of five. According to data from Policy Matters Ohio, a labor-friendly research institute in Ohio, one in 10 Amazon workers were receiving food stamps as of August 2017. One in 10 Amazon workers are also estimated to be on food stamps in Pennsylvania, and one in three in Arizona. Another company whose workers have long depended on food stamps to supplement meager wages? Walmart.

Meanwhile, Bezos just became the richest man in modern history, with a fortune that tops $150 billion. Bernie Sanders, for one, would like some answers.

Amazon has pushed back on these characterizations. In response to the warehouse allegations in the UK and complaints collected by Business Insider, Amazon said it “provides a safe and positive workplace” and didn’t “recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.” To the allegations in Minnesota, Amazon said it provided a “positive and accommodating workplace.” On pay-related matters, Amazon has said its workers get “regular pay increases,” Amazon stock, performance-based bonuses, and “comprehensive benefits which include health, vision, and dental insurance.”

Then there is Amazon’s corporate culture, described by the New York Times in 2015 as a “bruising workplace.” The Times reported that Amazon pitted workers against each other, and removed underperformers annually, in what one former human-resources director described as “purposeful Darwinism.” Amazonians were encouraged to “disagree and commit”; the company’s value code helped inspire Uber’s first ill-fated “philosophy of work.” Amazon called the Times reporting “sensational,” and attempted to discredit several of the story’s main sources.

Workers aren’t the only ones to lodge complaints against Amazon. Third-party merchants, once the backbone of Amazon’s e-commerce platform, have begun to suspect that Amazon is using them to figure out what sells best, then making the product itself. Amazon has pushed into private-label products over the last two years, and sold at least 1,500 products through its house brand, AmazonBasics, as of December 2017.

Other brands have sued Amazon for failing to prevent counterfeits from being listed on its website. Some of the better-known plaintiffs include Daimler AG, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, and iconic German shoemaker Birkenstock, which in 2016 pulled all its products from Amazon. On top of all that is the ever-present concern that Amazon may be a monopoly that wields low prices as an anticompetitive weapon.

Oh, and all that shipping and cardboard isn’t great for the environment.

So, what’s the verdict?

If you’re a socially conscious consumer, the answer is probably that you shouldn’t shop on Amazon. The company’s checkered history on labor and vaguely monopolistic tendencies should make you regard it the way you might regard Walmart: cheap, but at a price. On the other hand, Amazon has made itself so invaluable that the typical Amazon shopper—and especially the typical Prime subscriber—seems unlikely to give up the habit because some workers are unhappy and small businesses have been made to struggle.

Amazon puts us all on a convenience conveyor belt. And it’s really hard to get off.