By Irene Sodenko
Have you bought a book lately? If so, did you go into a book shop to buy it? And what about electronics? Did you go to a store to buy your latest gadget? Or did you buy it online….at Amazon?
Most online shopping searches now start at Amazon (or Google – a company Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, owns a stake in, more of which below). Just about every retailer and manufacturer that wants to reach customers online has little choice but to set up shop on Amazon’s platform, creating a virtual retailing monopoly. But how ethical is Amazon? And for we eco-fashionistas searching for organic cotton or hemp clothing, or sweatshop free brands online, it is ethical if we buy them on Amazon?
Shop Any Shop – As Long As It’s On Amazon
There can be little doubt that Amazon is the world’s largest retailer, but what are the implications of this? To understand the nature of the potential threat Amazon poses, we need to stop perceiving the company as a retail outlet and look at Amazon’s corporate strategy, which is to not only dominate the retail sector, but to own the very infrastructure that other businesses rely on to get to market.
Amazon is absolutely huge. Morgan Stanley believes Amazon has a path to be worth $1 trillion by late 2018, which could make it the world’s first trillion-dollar company, already beating Walmart and even exceeding the GDP of nations such as South Africa, Austria and Thailand. With $100B to his name, Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, has amassed personal wealth greater than that of the entire GDP of more than 129 countries.
So, how did the company reach this literally awesome status? Several studies and reports show that the company exploits the dependence of other retailers’ need to work with the platform – and then undermines them as rivals. According to Harvard Business School research, for example, when sellers list new products on the site, Amazon monitors their transactions and then begins selling their most popular-selling items itself. Surprisingly, the retailer’s Machiavellian tactics have been met with little market backlash. Few buyers, pressed for time and looking for the best bargains with the most convenience, care that Amazon has a penchant for using its economy of scale to kill small businesses, and few retailers dependent on the platform dare complain.
It’s a cutthroat strategy that is completely unregulated, and frankly, we’ve been here before. Think back to the Industrial Age, when robber barons like the Rockefellers and JP Morgan gained control of oil and the railroads and exploited that control to limit their competitors’ access to market. Americans responded by using antitrust laws to stop such anti-competitive behaviour – and that might be exactly what we need now to keep Amazon in check.
The Human Cost
While it may seem that comparison shopping for the best deals on a TV on Amazon, or click ordering weekly groceries can be a big help for cash-and-time starved families, when you think about the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, well – it makes an ethical fashionista cry.
Amazon refuses to give workers long term contracts and benefits, and there have been reports of workers being heavily monitored for productivity to the point where there
were recent reports of warehouse workers peeing in bottles out of fear of being punished for taking a break because the closet toilet was four flights of stairs away.
There are even reports of pregnant women afraid to take breaks for fear for being penalized for not meeting targets. Some employees reported getting strikes for missing work – even with a sick note from the doctor. And speaking of ‘strikes’ – it almost goes without saying that Amazon workers are not unionised and don’t even have the right to strike.
A large number of Amazon’s workers are paid so little they rely on food stamps. They are then desperate for the best deals and cheapest prices, so they spend their government aid on Amazon creating a cycle of corporate greed and worker poverty funded by taxpayers.
Basically, this is sweatshop labour, but without the sewing machines.
Perhaps Amazon isn’t investing in the wellbeing of their warehouse workers because they plan to follow in the steps of retailers like Alibaba who have turned to warehouse models that only employ robots; after all, some Amazon stores are 100% free of human assistance. In January of 2018, Amazon opened its first Amazon Go store to the public – entirely employee free. The technology uses cameras to take photos of customers when they enter the store, when they remove items from a shelf, and when they leave with items in their hands. Facial recognition and other user information, such as the shopper’s height and weight, biometrics, username, password, and purchase history, are also kept on file.
A camera-tracking system that uses AI in the form of facial recognition and/or user biometrics obviously stokes some privacy concerns, and frankly, it’s pretty creepy: if AI can silently watch you shop and charge you, what else can it do?
What’s more, in 2013 Amazon began experimenting with a drone delivery system called Prime Air, and in 2016 they delivered their first successful package in the UK via drone. Amazon’s reported plans to expand Prime Air are currently in the patent stage, while proponents are not sure if the tech is possible yet, but the intention is clear – Amazon intends to do away with pesky human employees as much as it possibly can.
No Tax, No Public Benefits
Despite earning nearly trillions of dollars, Amazon is receiving tax breaks – basically, corporate welfare. According to The Intercept: “In Pennsylvania, for instance, an estimated $24.8 million in (government) subsidies support 13 warehouses employing around 10,000 workers. At the same time, more than 1,000 of those workers don’t make enough money to buy groceries, according to public data provided by the state.”
You’d think that those publicly funded subsidies would be justified through corporate tax, but guess what? Amazon avoids paying corporate taxes. That’s because Amazon doesn’t collect taxes on behalf of third party vendors, and in states like Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. Amazon is reported to not be collecting local taxes at all, or if it is, it does so rates lower than local retailers, thus putting brick and mortar at a disadvantage to Amazon. This is due to an outdated precedent from 1992 that states “retailers must collect sales taxes only in states in which they have a physical presence.” The US and other countries have yet to implement an “internet sales tax”, which could help to level the playing field for brick and mortar stores.
Your Most Personal Data – Shared
Remember when I mentioned how Amazon is allowing shoppers to visit their physically present high street shops, without a single employee being present? It’s possible through their Rekognition facial recognition system, which links your face to your ID and your credit card. And Amazon, being the unscrupulous company it is, has been criticised for making deals to sell this information to the Pentagon and police. Thankfully, civil rights groups are working on stopping this, claiming that such ‘information sharing’ could potentially target immigrants and people of colour unfairly, and is a blatant violation of our privacy, and could potentially lead to an Orwellian nightmare whereby just by looking at you, authorities know everything about you.
In fact, Amazon’s Alexa is already capable (and guilty) of ‘accidentally’ sharing personal information, and given Amazon’s penchant for sharing personal data with governments, it’s probably just a matter of time before citizens are spied upon via their Alexa devices for government or corporate purposes – after all, Facebook had no problem selling our most personal data to these agencies, so why should Amazon?
News…Brought to You By Amazon?
In one of his more ominous moves, Bezos has been buying up media outlets. Bezos’ reach so far includes shares or full ownership of not only major publications The Washington Post, Business Insider, but also Google – basically, the internet itself.
Bezos rather laughingly said: “Journalism plays a critical role in a free society.” But when several media platforms are at least partly owned by a multi-billionaire who’s famous for dodgy business practices and controlling behaviour, are you really going to trust the news he publishes?
And that’s not the only pie Bezos has his fingers in. According to numerous media reports, he plans to take over the pharmaceutical retailing industry and turn Amazon.com into an elaborate, Big-Pharma driven drug dealing machine. He’s also made a $600m deal with the Pentagon to provide them with cloud computing technology that stores the personal data of millions of people, and is on the Pentagon’s advisory board. We need to ask the question: why is the owner of Amazon on a board that determines issues of national security, and war? There can be no denying that Bezos is part and parcel of the military-industrial complex that’s leading to so much more authoritarian control over our society, as well as more death and destruction in the world. And by supporting Amazon, we’re supporting Bezos’ consolidation of power.
In short, most Eluxe readers care very much whether their clothing is made in sweatshops, and will avoid brands that don’t treat their workers ethically. That’s all fine and well – but if you care about even more nefarious and important issues such as human rights violations, the killing of small businesses and open competition in business, privacy protection, freedom of speech and open information, you may want to think twice before purchasing even the most sustainable clothing brands if they’re on Amazon. With so many more ethical retailers selling directly online, it should be easier than ever to skip Amazon and shop directly from the maker. This is the best – and easiest – way to boycott the rather evil entity that is Amazon.
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