By now, Internet outrage over the New York Times’ recent business piece on the workplace culture at Seattle-based employer Amazon has reached fever pitch. It’s this week’s Cecil the Lion, and possibly this month’s Ebola outbreak — one of the ironic Things to be Outraged About, particularly if you’re a middle-to-upper-class educated reader of a publication like the New York Times who likes to be outraged about things, but still buys lots of clothing from Banana Republic (Just Google this to see why it’s a joke. Do it.)
I thought the NYT piece was well-researched and written, although criticisms that it was one-sided make sense, considering the reporters spoke to 100 people out of a company of approximately 18,000. In a company the size of Amazon, one piece or experience usually doesn’t equal the sum of the whole. Additionally, the CEO and many top executives declined to be interviewed.
More disturbing, though, were the response pieces and Tweets and comments on the original piece from tech insiders, many of whom said essentially a) ‘It sucks like this everywhere, get over it.’ or b) ‘My workplace is like this too. It’s eat or be eaten. I don’t know what to do.’ Some rebuttals, like the one from Bezos himself, and one echoed by some workers, went with ‘Nah, this doesn’t exist.’
There is a lot to speak about here. Most stories aren’t one-sided, and this story didn’t start with these interviews. It goes back a ways, and years-old stories reporting on conditions for Amazon’s warehouse workers from Mother Jones and Business Insider are a good place to start. The stories in the NYT article probably aren’t the case at each and every Amazon division. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about me, and why I’m dropping Prime. Because that’s what’s important. Focus, people.
In the grand scheme of things, there’s not a lot I can do about the tough work culture that pervades the tech industry, and other demanding fields like banking, medicine, law or consulting. It’s an issue that’s deeper than any one field – it’s not the fault of Jeff Bezos or Sergey Brin or Sam Walton or cynical 20-something tech workers clogging city roads. It’s our fault. You and I.
By our demand for getting cheap stuff fast, we’ve created a culture where profit and stock prices are the thing that matters. Everything is OK, as long as my 401k portfolio flourishes. As long as I don’t have to think about where the clothes at the Gap or the lipsticks at Dior are from, I’ll happily buy them for 30 percent off. When you offer me a really cheap iPhone every year, I won’t worry about who makes it or where it’s made. I’ll get it and use it a lot.
If someone has to work in a warehouse at Christmas in 20-degree weather without a bathroom break so I can get the last Frozen doll for my kid, then by God, I’m buying it and I don’t care how it happens. I’ll probably brag to my friends later about how I scored the last one. This sentiment is popular, and it’s growing. It’s recently made Amazon the most valuable retailer in the world, topping Walmart at $250 billion.
When I put it like that, it sounds like the seventh level of terrible behavior. I know for most of us that’s not true. Most folks don’t decide to do these things. We are busy working at our own demanding jobs and we want something nice for ourselves and our families. We don’t mean harm by the things we buy or the businesses we support. We simply don’t think about them at all.
Why is this a problem? Maybe for you it isn’t yet. Maybe you don’t care, as long as your GoPro is a good deal on Black Friday. Just wait. Employers like Amazon are considered leaders in the field, and if 80-hour workweeks, activity reporting and after-midnight emails are working for them (or other successful companies), you can bet at least some of these ‘innovations’ are coming to an office near you.
So even if you don’t give much, or any, thought to sustainability, warehouse or tech workers, or Chinese people manufacturing iPhones for 16 hours a day, at least consider the fact that you or one of your nearest and dearest might soon be working in a Great American Workplace not seen since the advent of labor laws.
With the expanse of information and education available to modern consumers, ignorance about how a company treats workers or where they buy their goods is no longer an excuse for inaction. Using innovation and creativity as an excuse to treat people poorly is not, and has never been, an acceptable course of action. If we continue to support companies that we know outsource jobs, treat workers badly and use tainted materials, we’re no longer outside the problem. We are the problem.
That’s why I’m quitting my Prime and Kindle Unlimited memberships after five years with Amazon. I spend hundreds of dollars there each year, refer my friends there and am more than happy with their customer service. I have no reason to leave other than I can’t in good conscience spend a large portion of my income with them anymore.
Talking about ethics sounds good in a board meeting or on Sunday morning, but when we strip away the window dressing, our ethics are on display in where we spend our money and how we spend our time. If you’re comfortable with instant gratification and one-day shipping, it might be inconvenient at first to make a few extra trips to Walgreens or the grocery store to get the things you used to buy on Amazon. It might be annoying to keep your old smartphone for more than one year, when everyone else is raving about the latest iPhone. It will be different to drive your car past acres of new-vehicle lots and hard to ignore the social media posts from friends showing off their latest purchases, and the creeping dissatisfaction when you look at your older, slower things.
But stay with me – here’s the reason why you should bother. One of the most common responses to the Amazon controversy (and the one about Walmart, and the sweatshops used by the Gap and Nike) is that we have the power of choice. Nobody is forced to work there, or buy clothes from these retailers. This is America. We can shop and work anywhere we want. If these companies meet their eventual goal (edging out the competition to become the only provider of whatever they make or do), there will be no choice. No walking away. Right now, we still have that choice. It’s not a big impact individually, but collectively, consumers have a voice. Look at the movement to include organic food at grocery stores, which recently has trickled down to big-box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. That didn’t start there. It started with a vocal minority and grew.
I have little sway in this big, profit-driven world, but I do have my wallet, and I’m using it. Consider using yours to give your values a louder voice. Corporations are certainly doing so, and right now they’re setting the tone of our culture. Is this the story we want to tell?
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