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.
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:
- Ada’s Technical Books and Café (Seattle)
- Book Larder (Seattle)
- BookTree (Kirkland)
- Brick & Mortar (Redmond)
- Eagle Harbor Books (Bainbridge Island)
- Edmonds Bookshop
- Elliott Bay Book Co. (Seattle)
- Fantagraphics Bookstore (Seattle)
- Island Books (Mercer Island)
- Liberty Bay Books (Bremerton, Poulsbo)
- Magnolia’s Bookstore (Seattle)
- Moonraker Books (Langley; on Whidbey Island)
- The Neverending Bookshop (Bothell)
- Open Books (Seattle)
- Phinney Books (Seattle)
- Queen Anne Book Company (Seattle)
- Seattle Mystery Bookshop
- Secret Garden Books (Seattle)
- Third Place Books (Seward Park, Ravenna, Lake Forest Park)
- The Traveler (Bainbridge Island)
- University Book Store (Seattle, Mill Creek)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.