A couple years ago, I fell in love with Amazon Subscribe & Save. I thought it would be handy to have more toilet paper, shampoo, cat litter, and other things we use on the regular shipped straight to us when we ran out. It worked better for some things — like cat food and litter, which we run through more predictably — than others. We ended up with like a year’s supply of paper towels. It was included in Amazon Prime and we even got a small discount for scheduling more things together.
Dash buttons took us to a whole next level. How convenient, I thought, to be able to just order more of the exact thing I needed at the press of a button. So I got one for paper towels, trash bags, and laundry detergent and promptly cancelled all of our Subscribe and Save.
The thing with Amazon is, they have all kinds of convenient things like this. Amazon Prime itself is super convenient but do we really need it? No. As I’ve started to learn the social cost of these conveniences, I’ve begun thinking twice about whether the convenience is worth the cost.
We cancelled our Prime membership a couple months ago.
Amazon’s impact on Seattle
While Amazon has added thousands of jobs to the city of Seattle, it has also made it a dramatically expensive and inequitable city to live in. The company’s rapid growth has caused a housing shortage to become a housing drought, with the city unable to keep up with demand, despite building new apartments fast than any other city in the country. This wouldn’t be terrible in and of itself but the company doesn’t seem to be doing anything to neutralize the inequities it’s created in the city. Shrugging it off instead as the price of having a company of its size in the community.
Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person. One might think that means working for his company must be lucrative, right? Maybe it is if you’re one of their software developers, but if you’re one of their delivery drivers, not so much. Amazon Flex pays well for an hourly job, but like many gig economy jobs, employees don’t get the guarantees and protections that full-time employment would carry, and even fewer still than a union-represented job.
Warehouse workers, too, don’t see much share of the fortune being made off of our Prime membership. In fact, several stories in the last couple years have illustrated the social cost of rapid delivery and the conditions endured by the invisible workforce behind Amazon’s product. While $120 per year may be the appropriate price consumers are willing to pay for this product, if that price can’t support the infrastructure keeping it running, it’s not worth supporting.
Too Big to Quit?
Amazon is everywhere. They’re increasingly diversifying their product line to the point where you can get an Amazon brand anything. I have to admit they’re doing a pretty good job of it.
I own several AmazonBasics products because they’re cheaper and about as good as other brands. Walmart, Target, and other big box stores all have their off brands, and AmazonBasics isn’t much different, except that they make basically everything. Amazon Prime Video, too, is turning out some excellent original programs that deserve to be made. I’m glad Amazon is giving them a chance. Finally, Amazon Web Services is inescapable and invisible from most choices you make on the web. One thing these three Amazon products have in common is that they’re really good at what they do. Together with acquisitions like Whole Foods make Amazon increasingly difficult to escape. (A seemingly-local coffee roaster here in Denver is actually owned by Whole Foods and, now, indirectly Amazon.) They’re yet another agglomerate company endemic to modern life.
Just as we can’t stop our bank from selling our mortgage to a giant commercial bank, we can choose to put our microeconomic choices into local businesses. Just as we can bank with a local credit union or community bank, we can choose not to give Amazon $120 every year just for access to their elite delivery service.
We can still get free delivery, it just takes longer without Prime — as long or longer even than the free delivery options from competitors like Target, if our recent experience is any indication. The forcing function of this is that we now seek out things we need quickly from local sources. This sometimes includes big box stores like Target, but also includes the shops in our neighborhood as well. Target may be a big box, but they pay a fair wage to our neighbors and full time employees there have the guarantees and protections that one should expect from a good job.
Some specialized items may only be purchasable from Amazon, but it’s increasingly worth the effort to be more conscious about the social costs of our spending.