There’s something rather ironic about the Amazon website’s name, Amazon. I’d visited the actual Amazon this summer. That big forest that covers nine countries and contains the longest river in the world. Allegedly Jeff Bezos changed the website’s name to Amazon (it used to be called “Cadabra”, like “Abracadabra”) in part to suggest scale. Bezos wanted the website to be really big. Like, the actual Amazon. And to be fair this comparison is quite apt. Since its creation, the forest has been the biggest in the world and just recently the website was valued at one trillion dollars. But the similarity in scale is all they share. Where the Amazon forest is a supplier to the world, the Amazon website is a drain. Where the Amazon nurtures communities within it and communities between nature, the Amazon website destroys communities.
Not untypical for a teenager of the noughties, I was swept up by Amazon and have been ever since. A convenient, low cost place to buy all that could be needed: books, computer games and presents. The risk of wasted money or a bad product choice is reduced by handy 0–5 star user ratings. Why go out and buy a book when you can get it delivered through your letterbox at a cheaper price?
Yet doubts started to fester. The occasional news item highlighting the ridiculously low tax rates that Amazon paid, followed by some obscene justification for why their taxes have decreased despite their increase in profits. Pity the high street book store that don’t have Amazon’s hordes of accountants. To take one example, according to the Booksellers Association, Waterstones on Bedford High Street is paying seventeen times more in business rates than Amazon. A menacing virtual world has covertly hollowed out the bricks and mortar of the high street.
Recently the writer James Bloodworth, in an undercover book on low-wage Britain, exposed the exploitation of Amazon workers. Bloodworth describes how zero-hour contract Amazon workers were not employees toiling away in a warehouse but had to be labelled as ‘associates’ working in ‘fulfilment centres’. The extent of the monitoring includes timing the length of toilet breaks. Bloodworth recounts how he once came across a plastic bottle of urine in the ‘fulfilment centre’. Presumably the wastage of an employee too scared to go to the loo. Bloodworth’s work has even been picked up and amplified by US Senator Bernie Sanders. And Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently made headlines for criticising Amazon’s tax affairs and the way it treats its workers.
For the bog-standard citizen who likes the idea of being a good person but are pretty busy with work in the week and want to chill out on the weekend rather than volunteer and take part in marches, boycotting Amazon therefore represents a golden opportunity.
The cumulative case against Amazon is pretty compelling: tax dodging; destruction of local communities; maltreatment of workers; the wider context of corporate monopolies accumulating ridiculous amounts of wealth while inequality drastically increases and average wages stagnate. Once you accept something rather fishy is going on, it then becomes a simple case of taking the morally obliged leap to never buy from Amazon again.
My one-man campaign started only a few weeks ago. It began with a humble protest: purchasing some books from Waterstones where before I might have “Amazoned” them. Though a few pounds more expensive, a sense of smug satisfaction replaced the guilty look towards the trademark Amazon cardboard package, lying in wait. The path to purity has its setbacks of course. In a moment of weakness, I bought from Amazon when looking for an obscure item to support a wrist injury. In a hurry, surfing the internet did not appeal. Still, at least I felt a pang of guilt at my hiccup.
The age we are in is commonly described as being a bit shit. The only debate is when and how its going to blow up, not if. Take your pick: global warming, superhuman AI, World War Three, the end of democracy. Yet there are some uplifting trends, among the individual and the collective, to counteract the doom. There are growing pockets of what could be described as an ‘ethic of responsibility’. Plastic water bottles and bags are gradually being used less and there might become a point where using them in public is taboo. One dominant characteristic of the age is the belief in the individual right to consume and express, without any accompanying sense of responsibility to others and the one planet we have. If you do buy Amazon, then even if you aren’t explicitly endorsing Amazon’s working practices, you are a passive enabler of a system that compels its employees to piss into a plastic bottle.
The most powerful opponent to an ethic of responsibility is not the battle between right and wrong but the tyranny of convenience. To stop buying Amazon is to challenge technologies that are so apt at exploiting human vulnerability; their success is predicated on capturing our attention. The age’s consumption is based on convenience at our finger tips. Amazon make things easy, convenient, addictive. Responsibility, doing the right thing, takes an effort. The value of inconvenience needs to be reclaimed.
Standing in the Amazon rainforest, you can’t help but feel a deepened awareness with what’s around you, a sense of responsibility to mother nature and the humans that inhabit it. The sly convenience of Amazon is a smoke screen for its moral bankruptcy. The responsible, gloriously inconvenient thing to do, is to give up Amazon. Do join.