Tuesday, May 27, 2014

An Amazon dilemma

Over the past few years, I've come to rely more and more on Amazon.com as my first stop when shopping for just about anything—or at least, anything I'm not likely to find in my own local stores. I've always found going to the mall a big hassle; every place I've ever lived, getting to the mall has involved at least a half hour of driving through nasty traffic, then circling the parking lot in search of a space, then struggling through the crowds of the mall itself, and all too often leaving empty-handed because after all that, I couldn't find what I wanted in any of the shops. So it was a tremendous relief to discover that what had once been just a discount bookseller had grown into, for all practical purposes, the world's biggest virtual shopping mall, with a vast selection of goods that I could browse through at my leisure from the comfort of my own home. I can nearly always find what I want after just a few minutes of browsing, and if I'm not sure what I want, I can consult the extensive collection of reviews from users to help me decide.

Aside from its convenience, I always figured Amazon shopping was a much more ecofrugal choice than mall shopping. Frugal, because its prices are typically a lot lower than those at local stores; eco, because it saves me all that driving and parking, and because having such a huge selection at my fingertips eliminates the need to drive from store to store looking for the particular product I want. True, the things I order still have to be delivered to me, but it seemed that having a single truck come from the nearest Amazon warehouse and make the rounds of my town delivering everything my neighbors and I have ordered must be more efficient than having us all drive to and from the mall individually. And as big corporations go, it didn't even seem to be all that evil. Its profile on Green America's Responsible Shopper site mentions a couple of labor disputes involving suppression of unions and a lawsuit over its privacy practices, but that's still not nearly as many complaints as you'd expect to see for a company of its size. The site also notes that Amazon gets a score of 80 out of 100 for gay-friendliness on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, which is certainly above average, if not outstanding. So I always felt like shopping at Amazon was a pretty good choice all around.

Imagine my shock and dismay, then, when a visiting friend mentioned to me that he'd stopped shopping on Amazon because its labor practices were so evil. The way he explained it was that Amazon does to its warehouse workers pretty much the same thing that Wal-Mart does to its suppliers; it keeps giving them higher and higher quotas to meet, and as soon as they fail to meet them, they get fired. Now, this struck me as less evil than just plain stupid, because it seems to ensure that they'll always be firing the most efficient and experienced workers and replacing them with new, less efficient ones—but when I did some searching online, I found that the claims appear to be completely legitimate. This article on Salon.com quotes from a book by Simon Head of Oxford University, who says his research has led him to conclude that Amazon is a strong contender for the title of "most egregiously ruthless corporation in America." While Mr. Head focuses mostly on the way managers at Amazon's warehouses time their workers' activities down to the second and require them to meet ever-increasing quotas, what I found most appalling was the account of how workers in one warehouse were kept on their feet (until they collapsed) as temperatures in the warehouse climbed to 110 degrees—and refused to open the doors for ventilation out of fear that employees would steal. Shades of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory there.

Since making this discovery, I've found myself in a bit of quandary. Naturally, I don't want any more of my money to go to a company that treats its workers this way, but what are the alternatives? Does this mean I have to go back to doing all my shopping the old-fashioned way? After a bit of consideration, I've decided that there's nothing wrong with using Amazon.com to help me shop, so long as I don't actually make the final purchase there. I can still visit the site to search products and compare reviews, but once I know what I want, I should copy the name of the product and paste it into Google Shopping to find another site that carries it. I can even continue to use my Amazon Wishlists to keep track of products I'd like to buy for myself or as gifts for others; that way I can still enjoy the convenience of having all my ideas stored in a single place without actually putting any money in Amazon's pockets.

It's also okay, I think, to keep buying things from the Amazon Marketplace. In that case, I'm actually dealing with a third-party seller; Amazon is merely providing the a venue for the transaction. True, I guess they do get a cut of the sales, but at least the products aren't being stored in Amazon's 110-degree warehouses where some poor schmo making minimum wage is going to keel over from heat stroke fetching them for me.

The real dilemma is going to be dealing with things that I literally can't find anywhere else—either in stores or online. Amazon.com may be evil, but it still has the best selection of goods, and sooner or later, I'm bound to run across something that I just can't find elsewhere. But I've checked on everything that I've bought from Amazon in the past six months, and in every case, a quick Google search was enough to turn up another supplier somewhere. In some cases, to be sure, Amazon's price was by far the cheapest—but then, in others, it actually would have cost less to buy somewhere else. So perhaps breaking out of the habit of just buying everything from Amazon will save me money in the long run.
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