NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Tired of Amazon’s greedy politics and bad business practices? Diversify your shopping!

In the ear­ly 1990s, future bil­lion­aire Jeff Bezos pur­chased the domain name Relentless.com, intend­ing to brand the online store that he had in mind with that name. Friends con­vinced him oth­er­wise, how­ev­er, and when his online store even­tu­al­ly launched in 1995, it was under the moniker Amazon.com.

Although Bezos became rich as the founder of Amazon.com, not Relentless.com, relent­less cer­tain­ly describes how his com­pa­ny oper­ates.

It has gone from being a tiny start­up oper­at­ing out of a garage to one of the largest and most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies in the world in just twen­ty plus years. Ama­zon may have been only a blip on the retail land­scape in its ear­ly days, but today, it’s an enor­mous jug­ger­naut.

Con­sid­er these met­rics:

  • Mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion: Ama­zon is con­sid­ered to be the nation’s most valu­able retail­er, hav­ing passed brick-and-mor­tar behe­moth Wal-Mart (the bane of Main Street retail shops) in 2015. Aside from Apple, Alpha­bet, and Microsoft — three oth­er tech titans which it com­petes with in some mar­kets — it is also the most valu­able com­pa­ny over­all.
  • Rev­enue: Ama­zon brings in more rev­enue than any oth­er tech com­pa­ny.
  • Num­ber of employ­ees: Ama­zon now employs more peo­ple in the Unit­ed States than any oth­er com­pa­ny besides Wal-Mart.

As Ama­zon has grown, its pol­i­tics and busi­ness prac­tices have come under greater scruti­ny, as has its work­place cul­ture. Ama­zon has not tak­en kind­ly to this scruti­ny.

The New York Times — which iron­i­cal­ly par­tic­i­pates in Ama­zon’s online ads sys­tem, dis­play­ing ads from amazon-adsystem.com on its site — angered Bezos and his exec­u­tives in 2015 when it pub­lished a lengthy front page sto­ry detail­ing aspects of the com­pa­ny’s cul­ture that its reporters found trou­bling and dis­con­cert­ing.

Wrote reporters Jodi Kan­tor and David Stre­it­feld:

At Ama­zon, work­ers are encour­aged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meet­ings, toil long and late (emails arrive past mid­night, fol­lowed by text mes­sages ask­ing why they were not answered), and held to stan­dards that the com­pa­ny boasts are “unrea­son­ably high.” The inter­nal phone direc­to­ry instructs col­leagues on how to send secret feed­back to one another’s boss­es.

Employ­ees say it is fre­quent­ly used to sab­o­tage oth­ers. (The tool offers sam­ple texts, includ­ing this: “I felt con­cerned about his inflex­i­bil­i­ty and open­ly com­plain­ing about minor tasks.”)

Many of the new­com­ers fil­ing in on Mon­days may not be there in a few years. The company’s win­ners dream up inno­va­tions that they roll out to a quar­ter-bil­lion cus­tomers and accrue small for­tunes in soar­ing stock. Losers leave or are fired in annu­al cullings of the staff — “pur­pose­ful Dar­win­ism,” one for­mer Ama­zon human resources direc­tor said. Some work­ers who suf­fered from can­cer, mis­car­riages and oth­er per­son­al crises said they had been eval­u­at­ed unfair­ly or edged out rather than giv­en time to recov­er.

That may sound bad (and it is), but life is even worse for work­ers in Ama­zon’s ware­hous­es, or as the com­pa­ny prefers to call them, ful­fill­ment cen­ters. Work­ing con­di­tions there have been the sub­ject of sev­er­al expos­es.

In May 2018, the Finan­cial Times report­ed on an inves­ti­ga­tion under­tak­en by the labor union GMB about con­di­tions in Ama­zon’s Unit­ed King­dom ware­hous­es.

The full arti­cle can be read at FT, but here’s a snip­pet:

One per­son said she was preg­nant and had to stand for 10 hours a day with­out a chair.

Oth­ers said they were treat­ed like “slaves” or “robots”, or that it was like “liv­ing in a prison” and “soul-destroy­ing”.

Anoth­er work­er said: “It is an awful place to work, can’t breath[e] or voice an opin­ion, feel like a trapped ani­mal with lack of sup­port and respect.”

One female work­er, who asked not to be named, said she had asked to be trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent depart­ment when she found out she was preg­nant.

“I was told I could not be trans­ferred and must con­tin­ue pick­ing, which involves bend­ing, stretch­ing and mov­ing a heavy cart, and walk­ing miles,” she said. “After a while I told them I could not walk so many miles and I could not pick from low loca­tions. I had a meet­ing with a safe­ty man­ag­er and was also told, ‘It’s not what you want, it is what we decide’ … I saw ladies with huge bumps pick­ing.”

Liv­ing in a prison. Soul-destroy­ing. Those are harsh words. And yet these com­ments match­es up with what oth­er peo­ple have said about work­ing in Ama­zon’s ful­fill­ment cen­ters, includ­ing peo­ple here in the U.S. One for­mer ware­house work­er apt­ly describes the com­pa­ny as obsessed with becom­ing the very def­i­n­i­tion of a face­less cor­po­ra­tion with no redeem­ing val­ues.

A lot can be said about the faults of Ama­zon. It exploits work­ers, feeds our cul­ture of con­sumerism, and so on.

But the real dan­ger is how the human ele­ment is slow­ly being elim­i­nat­ed. Man­agers man­age using a com­put­er pro­gram. Write ups are deter­mined by machine-made deci­sions. No one says, “Hey, what’s going on? Talk to me.” There is no human wig­gle room. Human­i­ty is treat­ed like a fault to be man­aged and over­come.

As a Native Amer­i­can, I under­stand the dam­age wrought by col­o­niza­tion, and I see even in the very name Ama­zon the specter of that demon. The indige­nous peo­ple in South Amer­i­ca prob­a­bly had dozens of names for the riv­er called “Ama­zon,” in dozens of lan­guages and dialects. The name ‘Ama­zon” is a name cre­at­ed by Euro­pean explor­ers set on exploit­ing the peo­ple and suck­ing their resources out from under them. How appro­pri­ate, then, for Jeff Bezos to choose it as the name of his soul-destroy­ing empire.

There’s that phrase again… soul-destroy­ing.

In Seat­tle, the largest urban cen­ter in the Pacif­ic North­west, Ama­zon has attract­ed even more scorn after wad­ing into the debate over the City Coun­cil’s abort­ed ordi­nance to raise more mon­ey to build afford­able hous­ing and fight home­less­ness by levy­ing addi­tion­al tax­es on busi­ness­es oper­at­ing with the city lim­its.

Ama­zon qui­et­ly cam­paigned against the ordi­nance at first. Then the com­pa­ny pub­licly threat­ened to pause its Seat­tle-based expan­sion if the ordi­nance passed. Lat­er, Ama­zon donat­ed mon­ey to the cam­paign to over­turn the ordi­nance.

At Cross­cut, Knute Berg­er recent­ly sug­gest­ed that Seat­tle and the Puget Sound region begin plan­ning for a post-Ama­zon future… a future in which the com­pa­ny moves its head­quar­ters and its cor­po­rate oper­a­tions else­where.

(Ama­zon is already engaged in the search for what it calls HQ2, or a loca­tion for a “sec­ond head­quar­ters”, although it claims it has no plans to aban­don Seat­tle.)

“Seat­tle is a sticky place, Ama­zon or not,” Berg­er writes. “Peo­ple who move here tend to want to stay. Of course, Ama­zo­ni­ans are not as set­tled as the 1970s Boe­ing salary­men and may pre­pare to decamp for the next tech hotspot.”

“Still, instead of get­ting trapped into end­less appeas­ing [of] big com­pa­nies that wield threats, it’s bet­ter for us to start prepar­ing for a sus­tain­able post-Ama­zon econ­o­my,” he goes on to say. “That seems like a smart move while at the same time redou­bling our efforts for mas­sive tax reform to make pay­ing for the dam­age of ‘success”‘more equi­table in the long run. That won’t elim­i­nate the “growth para­dox,” but it would give us more tools for han­dling it.”

We agree. We also think there’s a case to be made that Ama­zon has sim­ply got­ten too big, and should be bro­ken up into a num­ber of small­er inde­pen­dent com­pa­nies. Pres­i­dent Ted­dy Roo­sevelt did his coun­try a great ser­vice more than a hun­dred years ago when he embarked upon a trust­bust­ing cam­paign that took aim at some of the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful cor­po­rate con­glom­er­ates.

We sore­ly need a mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent of that.

But beyond macro-lev­el action by our local, state, and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments, we ought to rethink our own shop­ping habits. Ama­zon could nev­er have become as dom­i­nant and pow­er­ful as it is with­out our coop­er­a­tion.

The com­pa­ny has worked hard not only to try to get our busi­ness, but to keep the sales com­ing with gim­micks that seek to sat­is­fy our desire for instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Gim­micks like “free” two day ship­ping (which isn’t real­ly free), one-click order­ing, and, more recent­ly, same-day deliv­ery on select items in select met­ro­pol­i­tan areas.

Ama­zon has long been syn­ony­mous with low prices and best selec­tion; the com­pa­ny has done an incred­i­ble job get­ting into our heads and train­ing us not to shop around, even though the Net makes com­par­i­son shop­ping remark­ably easy.

In truth, Ama­zon does­n’t always have the low­est price, nor does it car­ry every item there is. But that does­n’t mat­ter, because Ama­zon already has what real­ly counts: Mind­share. When we want to buy some­thing online, we think of Ama­zon first, and we search amazon.com or the Ama­zon app for what we want.

Many small busi­ness­es par­tic­i­pate not in Ama­zon’s mar­ket­place because they real­ly want to, but because they feel they have to.

“Amer­i­cans say they prize com­pe­ti­tion, a pro­lif­er­a­tion of choic­es, the lit­tle guy,” not­ed Tim Wu in an op-ed for The New York Times back in March.

“Yet our taste for con­ve­nience begets more con­ve­nience, through a com­bi­na­tion of the eco­nom­ics of scale and the pow­er of habit. The eas­i­er it is to use Ama­zon, the more pow­er­ful Ama­zon becomes — and thus the eas­i­er it becomes to use Ama­zon. Con­ve­nience and monop­oly seem to be nat­ur­al bed­fel­lows.”

Old habits die hard, as the say­ing goes, but if you’re an Ama­zon cus­tomer who is increas­ing­ly con­cerned about Ama­zon’s greedy pol­i­tics and bad busi­ness prac­tices, you can do some­thing about it. You are not pow­er­less. You can vote with your dol­lars, and send less of them to and through Ama­zon.

Of course it will be less con­ve­nient… but if you’re will­ing to give up some con­ve­nience, you can make our econ­o­my more diverse and inclu­sive.

At NPI, we believe in lead­ing by exam­ple, so we have made a con­scious effort to look beyond Ama­zon for sup­plies and equip­ment nec­es­sary for our events and oper­a­tions. That effort has been very reward­ing: we’ve dis­cov­ered firms we nev­er knew exist­ed that offer fast ship­ping, rea­son­able prices, and good cus­tomer ser­vice. We’ve also increased our patron­age of brick-and-mor­tar retail­ers.

If the prospect of diver­si­fy­ing your shop­ping and reduc­ing your depen­dence on Ama­zon is appeal­ing to you, then have a look at this guide of alter­na­tives that we have put togeth­er. When­ev­er pos­si­ble, we try to shop local and union (and when it comes to food, organ­ic), and we encour­age you to try and do the same.

Books

The greater Seat­tle area is blessed to still have many inde­pen­dent book­stores. In NPI’s home­town of Red­mond, we gained an inde­pen­dent book­seller, Brick & Mor­tar Books, last year, and we’re pret­ty thrilled about that. Here’s a list of inde­pen­dent book­stores in our region that would love your busi­ness:

If you can’t find what you need at any of these fine inde­pen­dent book­sellers, there’s a good chance that Pow­ell’s has it online. You can buy in per­son from Pow­ell’s when in the Port­land area, or online. Orders over fifty dol­lars ship free.

You can also some­times buy direct from a pub­lish­er — Chelsea Green is an exam­ple of a pub­lish­er that has their own online store.

Final­ly, there’s Barnes & Noble. You should patron­ize your local book­store before turn­ing to B&N, but if you can’t find a book there that you real­ly want, you may be able to find it in B&N’s online cat­a­log. B&N also ships real­ly fast. In fact, B&N typ­i­cal­ly ships out items faster than Ama­zon does for non­mem­bers.

Gro­ceries

For gro­ceries, we advise becom­ing a mem­ber of an organ­ic food co-op like PCC Com­mu­ni­ty Mar­kets, which has a grow­ing num­ber of loca­tions in the Puget Sound area. (PCC in May opened its newest store in Burien, which has made it pos­si­ble for more peo­ple in the South Sound to belong to and enjoy the co-op.)

PCC is a pro­gres­sive tri­fec­ta: It’s a union employ­er, it’s local, and it sells whole­some, organ­ic food. While organ­ic food some­times gets pil­lo­ried for cost­ing more than con­ven­tion­al food, that’s actu­al­ly not a bad thing. Those high­er prices rep­re­sent an invest­ment in sus­tain­able farms and fish­eries that our soci­ety needs.

Fur­ther­more, when shop­ping for gro­ceries, don’t allow your­self to be fooled that size equals val­ue. Because organ­ic food usu­al­ly lacks filler ingre­di­ents like high fruc­tose corn syrup, there’s more good­ness and nutri­tion packed into every bite.

Orange juice is a good exam­ple of this.

A small cup of real orange juice is equiv­a­lent to a larg­er cup of orange juice made from con­cen­trate. The real orange juice does­n’t have all that added water.

There may be less liq­uid in your cup to drink, but with real orange juice, every sip is more sat­is­fy­ing. You don’t need as much.

So don’t wor­ry about the small­er serv­ing sizes of pack­aged organ­ic foods… be hap­py. Buy­ing organ­ic gro­ceries in small­er serv­ing sizes can also help reduce caloric intake to a more appro­pri­ate lev­el, because sci­en­tif­ic research has shown that por­tion con­trol is actu­al­ly the key to weight loss, or keep­ing weight off once lost.

PCC part­ners with Instacart, so you can get your gro­ceries deliv­ered to you if you don’t have time to go shop­ping your­self, or don’t want to.

You can also find organ­ic gro­ceries at rea­son­able prices and larg­er quan­ti­ties (or both) at Trad­er Joe’s, Cost­co Whole­sale, and online at Thrive Mar­ket.

Music

When it comes to music, you’ve got lots of options, from stream­ing ser­vices like Pan­do­ra, Spo­ti­fy, Sound­cloud, or Tidal to stores that will sell you down­load­able tracks like Beat­port. (Bea­port even offers tracks in uncom­pressed .wav for­mat.)

Want music on com­pact disc or vinyl? Try Discogs or CDUni­verse.

Elec­tron­ics

For com­put­er parts, there’s Newegg and TigerDi­rect.

If you need a new com­put­er, buy direct­ly from a man­u­fac­tur­er. The big play­ers in the indus­try are easy to find (Apple, Dell, HP, Acer, Leno­vo, and Asus), but there’s also small­er firms spe­cial­iz­ing in build­ing com­put­ers for enthu­si­asts who want to run free soft­ware on their hard­ware, like ZaR­ea­son or System76.

We advise all of our read­ers to buy direct from a man­u­fac­tur­er, because when you do you can typ­i­cal­ly cus­tomize the com­po­nents.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly with note­book com­put­ers, upgrad­ing the com­po­nents is key to future-proof­ing your machine, which will make it last longer, allow­ing you to do your part to com­bat e‑waste and planned obso­les­cence.

This is even true of the noto­ri­ous­ly fick­le Apple, by the way. When you buy through Apple and cus­tomize your build, you can beef up your Mac­Book Pro or Mac­Book Air with more mem­o­ry and pro­cess­ing pow­er.

If you do this, you’ll be very hap­py with your­self lat­er.

Pre­fer a brick and mor­tar super­store? Check out Fry’s in Ren­ton.

For elec­tron­ics and par­tic­u­lar­ly cam­era gear, you can’t go wrong with Ken­more Cam­era or Glaz­er’s Cam­era, both of which are local to the Seat­tle area and have com­mu­ni­ty-cen­tric own­ers. If they don’t have what you want or need, there’s also the big New York cam­era stores, Ado­ra­ma and B&H, which nowa­days are real­ly nation­wide online elec­tron­ics super­stores. Ado­ra­ma and B&H are gen­er­al­ly com­pa­ra­ble to Ama­zon with respect to both selec­tion as well as price.

Want to buy used? Check out Keh.

Appli­ances and spe­cial­ty elec­tron­ics

If you pre­fer to buy from a com­pa­ny with local roots, make tracks to a trust­ed firm like Albert Lee, which has serv­ing Wash­ing­to­ni­ans for decades. If you’d rather buy your fridge, dish­wash­er, or oth­er large appli­ance online, there’s Abt.

Look­ing for air puri­fi­er, humid­i­fi­er, or oth­er tool to improve your indoor air qual­i­ty? Try Syl­vane. They main­tain an infor­ma­tive web­site with lots of videos.

Need a vac­u­um clean­er or a blow­er? Metrovac will sell you one that’s Made in the USA and is pret­ty much inde­struc­tible.

Fur­ni­ture

If you’re for­tu­nate enough to have an IKEA near you (the Seat­tle area has an IKEA in Ren­ton), you can find lots of dif­fer­ent kinds of fur­ni­ture at rel­a­tive­ly afford­able prices. IKEA can be hit and miss, but some of their fur­ni­ture pieces are quite good. (IKEA also sells high qual­i­ty bat­ter­ies under the Lad­da moniker at great prices.)

If you work at a non­prof­it and need office fur­ni­ture, you can inquire with Green Stan­dards to find out if you can obtain sur­plus fur­ni­ture at no charge. Remem­ber, reuse comes before recy­cle, along with reduce!

For ergonom­ic office fur­ni­ture, there’s Human Solu­tion, which offers a large selec­tion of desks and chairs and will hap­pi­ly sell you high end prod­ucts from the likes of Steel­case that are some­times only sold in bulk.

Office sup­plies

While look­ing for Ama­zon alter­na­tives for office sup­plies, we came across OfficeWorld.com, based out of Eugene, Ore­gon. Their web­site isn’t the slick­est, but they ship very quick­ly and their cus­tomer ser­vice is good. Thanks to Office­World, we were able to obtain gar­ment friend­ly nametags for our Spring Fundrais­ing Gala at a good price, and we avoid­ed patron­iz­ing Ama­zon for that pur­chase.

Kel­ly Paper, which has a store in SoDo, is the best place to obtain reams or car­tons of spe­cial­ty papers in the Seat­tle area, such as the envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly, pri­mar­i­ly recy­cled card­stock that we use for a por­tion of our in-house print­ing.

If Kel­ly Paper does not have the paper you want in stock, they can usu­al­ly get it in store next-day for you at no extra charge.

Print­ing

When we need some­thing print­ed that we can’t print our­selves (or don’t want to), we turn to But­ton­smith. Found­ed by young entre­pre­neur Hen­ry Burn­er, But­ton­smith is a Car­na­tion-based, union­ized print shop that can pro­vide you with stick­ers, but­tons, lit­er­a­ture, signs, t‑shirts, and much, much more. But­ton­smith is an Ama­zon mar­ket­place sell­er, but they’ll hap­pi­ly do busi­ness direct­ly with you.

Appar­el

There are sev­er­al com­pa­nies mak­ing qual­i­ty tex­tiles right here in the Unit­ed States that will sell online direct to you. bgreen is an exam­ple. They make com­fort­able under­gar­ments here in the States with organ­ic cot­ton.

Out­door gear

REI (for­mer­ly Recre­ation­al Equip­ment, Inc.) will be hap­py to equip you with what you need to explore the great out­doors safe­ly and com­fort­ably, whether that’s a tent, sleep­ing bag, skis, trekking poles, or sports­wear.

REI has a very good online store in addi­tion to many phys­i­cal loca­tions.

REI is one of sev­er­al retail­ers that has tak­en a stand against greed and ram­pant con­sumerism by clos­ing its stores on “Black Fri­day”. On the day after Thanks­giv­ing, the com­pa­ny urges its cus­tomers to #OptOut­side instead.

You should also patron­ize Patag­o­nia, which has a track record of fight­ing against right wing poli­cies that are bad for our plan­et. Patag­o­nia is suing the Trump regime over its attempt to shrink Bears Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ment in Utah. They have two loca­tions in Seat­tle plus an online store.

Now it’s your turn!

Know of any good Ama­zon alter­na­tives we did­n’t men­tion?

Please leave them in the com­ments.

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