From our Obsession
Looking at Big Tech as the next Big Oil.
There are many reasons you might want to boycott Jeff Bezos’ $900 billion giant.
The backlash against Amazon’s treatment of its workers has, over time, led the company to raise wages and improve benefits. After it brought up the minimum pay to $15 per hour, the number of applications for warehouse jobs more than doubled. Its warehouses are increasingly automated, relieving some the human workers from some of the most strenuous parts of the job, and the company said it is retraining its workforce to adapt to a changing labor landscape.
But plenty of other issues persist. BuzzFeed reported in August that Amazon’s new next-day delivery offering has has led to deaths, illness, and terrible labor conditions for its workers. The company is fueling the surveillance and deportation of immigrants in the United States. Its environmental footprint is enormous.
As my colleague Alison Griswold outlined in her piece about canceling her Prime membership, Amazon is also copying products by much smaller companies, enabling a toxic corporate culture, and gobbling up enormous amounts of user data. Since its origins as a humble online bookseller, Amazon has become a corporate behemoth, building a dystopian retail empire—and, through its Ring security cameras, a massive surveillance system.
I’d been considering cutting down on my Amazon habit for some time, considering all of the above. Prime Day, the marketing-scheme-turned-ultimate-consumerist-holiday, seemed like a good time to start, with Amazon workers protesting against the company’s labor practices both in the US and Europe.
For a couple of months, I would stop ordering from Amazon completely, documenting what I did instead. How did Amazon insert itself in my life, and how hard would it be to extract myself? What would be the choices I made instead, and would they be more ethical?
The plan for my boycott experiment wasn’t to avoid any online shopping—deliberately so. Refusing to shop online is simply not an option for many people, like those who don’t live in an urban area, or who have obligations and disabilities preventing them from going to the store. The goal also wasn’t to boycott Amazon wholesale, simply because it’s very hard to do: Journalist Kashmir Hill recently tried to disconnect herself from Amazon completely, including from all the websites it controls through Amazon Web Services (AWS), its cloud business, and it proved impossible.
I usually order things several times a month on Amazon, from replacements for cords that my cat has chewed through, or one brand of matcha tea powder with collagen that I’m convinced calms my acid reflux (science says the jury is still out on that). It’s usually things I can’t easily find nearby. There are some beauty products not available at a local pharmacy or chain store, and some things I’d have to trek across New York to get.
Amazon’s tendrils have sunk deep into my daily habits in other ways. I occasionally order books on Amazon (but try to buy in person at local bookstores when I can), I watch some shows on Amazon Prime, and I subscribe to The Washington Post, which is cheaper with a Prime account. I also recently started listening to books through Audible, and own and read books through my Kindle.
Even leaving aside AWS websites, cutting the company out of my life would be at least annoying, if not a minor undertaking. But this was an exercise in more thoughtful consumption. I wanted to see whether the convenience of ordering online from Amazon provides is that powerful for me as an individual consumer, and if it really means anything to be taking a stand against one company’s practices.
Here are a few things I learned:
The free shipping trap
I had to find where to get my ridiculous matcha, and eventually discovered it was available in Sephora’s online store. Unlike Amazon Prime, where you can order something for $10 without shipping costs, Sephora offers free shipping when you spend $50. So each time I ordered my $49 tea, I added something to get the free shipping. I tried to make it something that I already needed, but it definitely led to some unintended purchases.
The free shipping trap often made me consume just as much as I would when shopping with the convenience and immediacy of Amazon. I’d find a justification to add things to my cart to score that free shipping, knowing full well it was a trick designed to make me buy more. I dug around for a pen I like to write with, and found it on JetPens.com—but the $25 free shipping threshold pushed me to get two, for $13 each. The false promise of a “deal” was just that strong.
In reality, if you want to support small businesses, you should be prepared to go to a physical location, or pay for shipping. Big retailers can absorb the price of delivery, and for a company like Amazon, it’s wrapped up in the Prime membership, but for smaller retailers, the cost is unsustainable. And all that shipping is putting a big burden on both the environment and our physical infrastructure.
The blessing of avoidance
There were times when shipping costs simply deterred me from buying things I didn’t need. I saw that a notebook I had wanted would be $7 at a small retailer’s website, and delivery would be $6, so I decided it wasn’t worth it.
Amazon also gives you the opportunity to buy something immediately. After a long hiatus, I started running again, and thought that I needed an armband for my phone. In the past, I might’ve just gone to the Wirecutter for a recommendation and quickly purchased their top pick, which generally links to Amazon. I hesitated, and ended up stumbling upon a running belt I bought ages ago that was enough for my purposes.
This happened several more times with other items. Without the ease of quick purchasing on Amazon where my credit card was saved, I was able to be more mindful about what I really needed.
Patience is a virtue
Most things that I ordered or bought I couldn’t get as quickly as I would on Amazon—but waiting a couple of days longer for a package was just fine. I survived not getting a buzzy book immediately, and instead would get in line for a book at the library (e-book rentals are the ultimate convenience of our time!).
I had some birthdays, a christening, and an engagement party that I needed to get gifts for in a short time frame. Instead of agonizing over finding the perfect thing I can find online or relying on an algorithm, I’d take a walk and browse a local store, taking my cue from my colleague Jenni Avins, who advocates shopping for gifts in person. Of course, working on one of the busiest shopping streets in Manhattan, and living in an area full of small boutiques, that’s an easier feat for me than than most people.
The conundrum of corporate behemoths
I shopped at several other retail giants during my boycott, like Sephora, and made one purchase each at the online stores of Walmart and Target. The question became: does boycotting Amazon without boycotting the another multi-hundred-billion-dollar retailer like Walmart mean anything?
If Amazon is the new corporate evil, Walmart is the old one. Labor conditions for its front line and warehouse workers have been notoriously bad. Although the company has made a number of improvements—it said it would keep raising wages, and has a relatively progressive CEO—it has a long way to go to be a champion employer. Just this year, the company was accused of racial discrimination by workers who were fired based on their criminal convictions. Many of its workers also earn below the poverty line.
Target, another big box giant, has raised its starting wage to $13, which is $2 more than Walmart, and expanded benefits for its workers this year, including parental leave. But, according to media reports, worker hours were cut, leaving them with smaller paychecks, and after overnight and backroom shifts were reduced, the conditions in the back rooms overcrowded and unsafe.
I did some basic research on these companies: checking media reports for labor conditions, and websites like Indeed.com and Glassdoor for an overview of salaries and job reviews. I’d find something that I didn’t like in the practices in most of these big stores, but ultimately, without unlimited resources, I learned I’d have to pick my battles. Walmart, unsurprisingly, is probably not the best alternative to Amazon. Warehouse retailer Costco, for example, with its good worker benefits, is better—but to get its competitive prices, you have to go to a physical location.
A list of strategies
During my experiment, I came up with a list of strategies of how to be a more effective and ethical shopper without Amazon.
- Just don’t buy it. It’s better for the Earth, for society, for your wallet, your house, maybe even your mental health. This turned out to be easier than I thought it would be.
- Buy it if, after several days of weeks of thinking about something, you still decide you need it or want it. Eliminate the “Buy now” temptation.
- Try to shop local to avoid shipping.
- If you have to shop online, opt for smaller retailers that specialize in certain products and are known to have good labor and sustainability practices.
- For books, go to Indiebound.org, where the search function lets you find which local bookstore carries the book you want. The site also lets you buy directly online, supporting a network of local bookstores.
- Loyalty programs in other stores might have perks that make up for Amazon Prime’s free shipping or lower prices (my Sephora purchases, for example, gave me reward points that ensure nice perks in the future).
America is full of societal holes that create the necessity for something like Amazon Prime, points out Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker. There are food deserts, parents who have to work long hours or several jobs with long commutes to sustain their families, and few good childcare options.
Whether boycotting gigantic companies is at all effective is a complicated question. Clearly, many of the problems they create are less about individual choice than systemic solutions. But then again, we do see that corporations can adjust their behaviors based on changing societal norms and calls for accountability.
I probably won’t cancel Prime because I still enjoy its streaming TV and book services, but I think I’ll continue to avoid shopping for physical things on Amazon. Living where I do, it’s easy to do. The main thing this experience showed me is that I need to be more diligent about distinguishing between wanting something and needing it. And there are very few things I need that I can’t buy at a local shop.
And I try to remind myself of something I heard writer Mike Isaac say during a recent talk on his new book on Uber: We’d drive ourselves crazy by agonizing over the ethics of every choice we make in a capitalist economy.