Breaking up with Amazon is hard to do

Maybe there is a little Amazon in every office nowadays. The recent New York Times report on the demanding conditions of white-collar Amazon.com workers has caused tremendous debate—more debate, incidentally, than revelations about the company’s even more disturbing treatment of blue-collar workers. Perhaps there is something about the mixture of affluence and ruthlessness, like Gordon Gekko declaring that greed is good, that we’re not sure whether to love or to hate.

This week I heard from an America reader, Kevin Bailey, who has been discerning what a Christian’s responsibility is in light of these revelations:

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You probably have seen the New York Times exposé of the Amazon corporate work culture. I know you also write about technology from time to time and was wondering what you might have to say about where a corporate culture such as Amazon’s leaves us as consumers. I’m personally tempted to cut ties and not support it with my dollars. Yet it’s a tough choice because we rely on Kindle texts and the convenience of delivery to save us time and money.

I suppose I’d start by wondering if we can do better than thinking of ourselves as “consumers.” What if we consider ourselves here as human beings, people made in the image of God whose every action has moral consequences? That, I think, is the frame that Kevin is speaking from when he tells of his temptation to break with Amazon. Consumers are fictional beings who seek products and “satisfaction” wherever it can be found for the lowest possible monetary cost. People, however, make decisions based on other kinds of values. What interests us, in addition to stewarding money, is stuff like relationships, justice, creativity, and authenticity.

An Amazon for people, rather than consumers, might look more like Fairmundo, a German online marketplace organized as a cooperative among its vendors. Members will be on hand, along with those of other human-centered online enterprises, at an event on “platform cooperativism” that I’m co-organizing at the New School this fall. It’s hard to imagine that the worker-owners of a cooperative would impose Amazon's punishing conditions on themselves.

Another question is efficacy. The Times notes that Amazon is now the most valuable retailer in the country, even more so than Walmart. Challenging its value system is an extraordinary challenge—just ask the book publishers—and it will require more than a conscientious few going elsewhere for their ebooks. (There are lots of other options, by the way.) It will require, probably, a whole different culture around how we behave in the economy.

Recently in Rome I sat down with Leonardo Becchetti, a (Jesuit-educated) Italian economist who is part of the “civic economy” school—an approach that looks beyond the homo economicus to a much broader vision of what the economy is for and what it means to participate in it. Among his many publications is a new book called Next, Vote With Your Wallet!, which explores strategies for the kind of conscious consuming that Kevin is contemplating.

“What you have in the civil economy are consumers who are socially responsible and involved with the world,” Becchetti told me. “Citizens must be active, they vote with their wallet. We should exploit this act of freedom that individuals have. It’s a very bottom-up, grassroots vision, the civil economy. It’s not the state that decides for everyone.”

Becchetti, along with fellow civic economist Stefano Zamagni, has been an influential voice in the formation of recent Vatican teaching on the global economy. It's fitting, then, that in his thinking on Amazon, Kevin also brought up Pope Francis’ new encyclical:

After reading “Laudato Si,’” it’s clear one of the main themes is conversion. A cultural conversion is needed around these kinds of issues. How do we want our economy to look? How do we want our work lives to look? Do we want just a few large corporations providing us everything? At what social and moral cost?
 
These are the questions we should be asking in our parishes, but I’m afraid in the USA we’re not even close yet.
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Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
Nathan, I understand how you can arrive at your conclusions. Amazon is not a perfect company. But it is an enormous mischaracterization to describe Amazon as a disservice to the American people. On the contrary it is hard to see any other company which has been more dedicated to the American consumer. The description of employee dissatisfaction in the NY Times could have been written about many companies. Notice that there is not much if any where they have refused to give people a living wage. Like Apple, MacDonalds, Modell's and practically every retail establishment. The publishers you referred to are, first of all not poor, and attacked Amazon because they were being out done in pricing. Authors joined the fray as if they were in it for any other reason than monetary. Moreover, the publishers were rebuked by the department of Justice for price fixing. As Kevin pointe out he is conflicted because of the great value Amazon has for him. I agree. its service is peerless . Its prices manageable while they have made reading and research more efficient than ever. People trust Amazon. Can that be said of many companies. For example Microsoft makes it so difficult to get service and they charge for it. Then you get someone who cannot speak English and provokes rage in the mildest person. Google is the only one who comes close to Amazon in service and prices. There is so much more about Amazon. What is amazing is that companies like Microsoft and Apple when they cannot win in the marketplace got the the government for help. There is a world of good about Amazon. Give them a chance to correct the problems. But for the consumer or whatever term you prefer there is none better.
K L
2 years 3 months ago
@Bill Mazzella: The point of boycotting Amazon is not that it is bad for me, the individual customer. I, too, have experienced Amazon's excellent customer service, low prices, and fast shipping. The point is that such convenience and service comes at a dear price. The same organizational structure that means you get your specialty hose nozzle overnighted to your door means that workers are exploited, callously treated, and unjustly compensated. (The New York Times article did not even get into the plight of the warehouse workers who labor as subcontractors under deplorable conditions.) It's not good for society at large that such treatment of workers is permitted. Furthermore, it goes against the Church's teachings on social justice and the dignity of human labor. Two reasons to oppose and/or boycott Amazon, neither of which have anything to do with my individual benefit. Amazon need not directly, obviously impact *me* as an individual in a negative way in order to in fact be providing a disservice to the American people generally. This is supported by the Catholic social principles of solidarity and the call to community. The fact that what is being said about Amazon could apply to any number of large corporations in the United States is not a mark in Amazon's favor, but an indictment of our society generally. "But everyone is doing it" isn't an excuse for misbehavior in children, and it certainly isn't for adults or communities. You tell us to "give [Amazon] a chance to correct the problems," but the fact of contemporary Western capitalism means that companies have no motivation to change practices that have been successful for them unless it affects their revenue. Guess what affects revenue? Boycotts.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
KL,Why do I feel like you are talking over me without noting my whole post. My first point is that it is Amazon that is being picked on here despite its many good points.Why is not Microsoft and Apple being given this negative treatment also. What about the banks who singlehandedly brought the great depression. Your boycott should start there. My point is that Amazon's benefits outweighs its shortcomings. And we really don't have that much solid information about the latter. Don't you think you can do more research on your warehouse comment, for example. http://mentalfloss.com/article/61249/13-secrets-amazon-warehouse-employees Much of what you are going on is anecdotal. Certainly the article I referenced here does does not look like a slave factory. There are many other jobs (which are not unjust) which are harder than the warehouse job at Amazon. The fact is you do not have that much information. Why don't you and others acknowledge that? My point is that so much of the animus against Amazon is writer/author/academia driven. They are really upset they are getting less money. Since they write more there is more print against Amazon. If you want to talk about boycott, you might start with the universities who have grown their tuition to unaffordable proportions while misusing their endowments for other expenses not helpful to students. Nathan referred to the parishes. Good idea. But not for the reasons he cited. They are in general replete with mediocrity and give minimal service to their community. Now that is a place to boycott. And apply Laudato si.
Tim Reidy
2 years 3 months ago

KL, please use your full name in the future per our comments policy.

Nathan Schneider
2 years 3 months ago

Thanks for sharing your experience. But I do think that the sole frame on the "consumer" here is exactly the problem. What good is efficiency and "customer satisfaction" if it is damaging to the people carrying it out? The frame of personalism in Catholic tradition asks more of us than what we are getting; it asks what we are doing to others, and what we are contributing to.

Similar questions must be raised about Google, which, like Amazon, relies on a "big data" business model with a great many hidden costs. What is being done with the data we ceaselessly provide them? How is knowledge about our lives being used to generate revenue? How is it being handed over to unaccountable "security" agencies?

Two other points:

  • Amazon's business model is in no way independent of the government. A great deal of its server infrastructure is in Northern Virginia because the company not only relies on the bandwidth made possible by government/military programs there, but the company itself provides infrastructure for many of those programs. I think it's also no accident that Jeff Bezos saw an interest for himself in buying The Washington Post.
  • Despite the unwillingness of the Justice Department to carry out its anti-trust mission in recent decades, Amazon has flagrantly used monopolistic practices to bully the publishing industry into submission—and, in some cases, to illegal activity as it tries to resist. The publishing industry has many flaws, but it is a troubling situation when one of the country's largest companies is able to subsidize its intentions to control an industry of cultural production with its massive profits from selling electronics, cloud services, and server farms for the military.

None of this is to say that Amazon is purely bad. It is not. But it is a supremely important company in our society, and the degree to which it acts with impunity, and without a great deal of public accountability, should be troubling to us all. I don't think this post is a call to attack Amazon or take it down; it is a call to raise questions about how we can have an economy that holds its powerful actors more accountable for the consequences of their behavior.

Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
Wow, is it the prejudice of the writer showing up or what? You have attacked Google whom I praised also while leaving out so many greedy companies that makes Amazon and Google look like saints. I suppose you will attack Uber and Airbnb next since they are beating the competition. May I ask why you singled out Amazon. And not so many other companies whose existence depends on government protection and subsidies. Google gives its chrome for free with so many other things while Microsoft destroyed companies who would not use its inferior browser. Not it is not supporting XPs because it wants to sell Windows which is a dying endeavor. Only when the competition beat them fairly did Microsoft finally realize that they had to compete rather than to block every product which depended on Windows. Certainly, Amazon has benefited from some positioning. But its advantages tremendously outweigh its liabilities. Further, you obviously did not read my rebuttal as you showed some research in showing some possible advantages of Amazon while neglecting other companies that are killing the middle class. Amazon has helped the middle class in its employees and its product. Again re-read what I wrote. You obviously stayed with your thesis and simply sought to bolster it while ignoring a whole world of facts which knocks down your prejudicial view. I welcome an honest debate. If I am misjudging you I am willing to reconsider.
Nathan Schneider
2 years 3 months ago

I'm sorry my response was not clarifying for you. I certainly made an effort to respond to some of the issues raised by your comment, though I'm sure I could have done better.

You seem very concerned that I am singling out Amazon here. On the one hand, the post above does focus on Amazon, simply because it is a company that people are talking a lot about lately, and which an America reader specifically took the time to write to me about. One can only speak to so much at a time in a short post, and in this one it seemed timely to speak of Amazon. If you'd like, I could take you on a tour of my other writings, which have applied scrutiny (as well as praise) to a great many other companies.

At the same time, in the above post, I generalize the questions being raised. The notion of cooperative online platforms, informed by Catholic social teaching, raises important questions about the structure of nearly the entire tech industry, and beyond.

Still—yes, I disagree with you that the services you perceive as "free" are an unmitigated good (for "the middle class" or anyone else). These services are not free. They come at the cost of handing over very personal information to a corporation legally obligated to be concerned about its clients only to the degree that it can continue to profit from them. There are very serious costs at stake here, and it would behoove us to learn how to notice them.

Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
Thank you for this response. I did notice that you are into other things and I applaud you for it. I am happy that you understand that I object that you are singling out Amazon. Amazon is in the news and I can understand you using that to bring out a point. I think the Occupy movements that you favored are more on target. Interesting that that movement did not muster as much support as the one that is going against Amazon. The columnist Joe Nocera showed superficial insight in his review today for the NY Times. There is a lot of discussion. I see it as a positive that Bezos bought the W Post. It is one of the idiocies of our era that Buzz Feed is worth more, financially, that the W Post and NY Times put together. Again I think the hedge funds and the Banks head the criminal list and among fortune 500 companies there are none better than Google and Amazon. However imperfect. I do appreciate your interest in justice. I can see that it is a passion of yours. Mine too.
J Cosgrove
2 years 3 months ago
A few comments: Is it an expose or a hit piece on an undesirable place? Or just a place that gets things done? When my wife and I started our own business, 16 hours days were the norm for months. Jeff Bezos and a top manager have replied http://fortune.com/2015/08/17/jeff-bezos-memo-new-york-times/ http://www.businessinsider.com/an-amazonians-response-to-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace-2015-8 The New York Times is a competitor of Amazon. Amazon owns the Washington Post. Also the NY Times is also known as a different type of sweat shop. http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/110203/
THE DECLINE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES: An interview with William McGowan, author of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means For America. I talked recently to an acquaintance who just left the NYT and he said that however bad you think the management is from the outside, the view from the inside makes clear that it’s ten times worse.
Is Amazon ecologically positive and in sync with Laudato Si? I have certainly consumed less energy since using Amazon. Much less time in the car going to various stores that enable me to do other things such as post comments on a blog. I realize it takes energy to get me the product but it is far less than if I had to go back and forth to stores all the time. Separate topic - cooperatives are an example of free market capitalism. As long as the state does not enforce or proscribe what they can do. Also large corporations often do not represent free market capitalism especially if they lobby lawmakers to restrict what their competitors can do or make favorable deals for certain business. It is a mistake to equate business with free market capitalism. A lot of businesses do not operate as freely as they should and work with politicians to rig the game. A final point. Every life form consumes in some way. Thus, we all are consumers and have been since the beginning of civilization. It is a baseless point to try to say we must be more human. Human existence is based on consumption. Without consumption, we would be meaningless creatures. The question is what do/should we consume?
Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
J, I welcome your seeing the solid advantages Amazon has for the country and its employees. I just wonder why it is necessary to blame the NY Times. Its article on Amazon was fair reporting and it opened up the discussion. It is not a research paper nor does it posit a point of view. the facts are there to ,make one;s own decisions which makes the Times unique. I don't think there is a paper in the country that is as objective in reporting like the NY Times. You can argue against its editorial politics. But the reporting imho has no equal. While no paper is perfect.
J Cosgrove
2 years 3 months ago
Let's just say I do not agree with your assessment of the NY Times. I know lots of very reputable people who have a very different opinion of the NY Times and its reporting, not just its editorials. If it is non-political, the reporting can be very good but just let there be an edge politically somehow and the reporting slants. As did this article. When I read the article, I was appalled at certain things and then something did not compute. Why is Amazon's work force growing so fast? Don't they hear things. As a young person just out of school I would have loved to have been challenged by this system. Not so as I got older and had a family but I would have looked on it as boot camp preparing me for the future and for challenges I could not foresee. Compared to Seal Training or just plain preparation for the Marines, it is mild.
Vince Killoran
2 years 3 months ago
We hid behind consumerism to avoid our moral obligation to consider the worker.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 3 months ago
Balance--from an Amazon worker to NY Times. To the Editor: I found your portrayal of Amazon to be extremely one-sided. I have worked at Amazon for four years. Yes, it is competitive; yes, the work demand is high; yes, my desk is a slab of wood (who cares?!); yes, I have given Anytime Feedback on my colleagues and have received it as well. But no — I don’t work 80 hours a week; I took four weeks of vacation last year and got promoted. No, I don’t cry at my desk every day. No, I wasn’t told to forget everything I learned in my last job (my skills in that workplace are what secured my job at Amazon!). You portrayed Amazon as if people had no will to leave if they don’t like it — which is absurd. In Seattle, Amazon employees have numerous options — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Expedia, Starbucks, Real Networks, Tableau. The list goes on and on. Why didn’t your writers ask, “If you were so unhappy, why did you stay?” Maybe the projects they worked on were interesting, or they wanted to keep vesting their valuable stock. But whatever the reason, it was their choice. There are many valid points in the article — the struggle for work-life balance, data management as a performance appraisal tool and so on — but they’re lost when the article is so clearly unfair. GEN HARRISON-DOSS Seattle

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