When a new novel came out that I wanted, my 5-year-old and I visited our local bookshop, Belmont Books, to buy it. When we stepped inside, Ella was mesmerized by the children’s section, where tables were neatly stacked with gorgeously illustrated books and toys based on her favorite characters. The shopkeeper asked Ella what she liked to read. As I watched the two of them talk passionately about The Lorax and The Snowy Day, it dawned on me that my daughter had hardly spent any time in bookstores, some of my favorite places as a child. From the time Ella was born, we had bought almost everything she needed—diapers, applesauce, Goodnight Moon—from Amazon.
I made my first purchase on Amazon as a college junior in 2003 when I ordered Anna Karenina for an English class. Over the next 18 years, the retailer became entrenched in my life, carrying me through all my major milestones. I used Amazon to create my wedding registry, then my baby registry. As a Prime member, I was addicted to opening the Amazon app whenever a product popped into my head and having it on my doorstep two days later.
But this convenience comes with a cost: Hundreds of thousands of Americans work at Amazon fulfillment centers—facing injury rates 80% higher than the rest of the industry, as well as COVID-19 outbreaks—so the rest of us can get products delivered quickly. Recent reporting has exposed how Amazon has reshaped the American economy, largely for the worse, building its business on grueling working conditions, accelerating climate change, exacerbating social inequality, and destroying small businesses.
And yet, Amazon keeps getting more powerful. The pandemic created the perfect storm for a year of explosive growth, as consumers were afraid to leave their homes and needed daily necessities shipped to their doorstep. In 2020, Amazon generated $386 billion in revenue, up 38% from the year before, and founder Jeff Bezos saw his personal fortune grow by $75 billion. “To be clear: We made Amazon,” says Lauren Bitar, a retail analyst at RetailNext. “Amazon did not just come out of the ether as a villain. Consumers wanted convenience and low prices, and Amazon made it happen for us.”
I had been wanting to detangle myself from Amazon for a long time. And judging from the many blogs offering advice about how to stop using the platform, I wasn’t alone. A CNBC poll found that 59% of people say Amazon is bad for small business, and it’s not uncommon for residents to protest when Amazon opens a new warehouse (or proposes a new headquarters). Meanwhile, lawmakers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have used their platform to call out the company’s poor treatment of workers and its failure to pay its fair share in taxes. But so far, none of this has made a dent in Amazon’s growth.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to wean myself off a service that felt so integral to my life. But in March, after long conversations with my editors about Amazon’s negative effect on workers and the planet, I decided to see what it would take to cut the cord. And for the past six months, far from feeling deprived, my new shopping habits have made me feel more fulfilled and empowered.
The human cost of two-day shipping
Amazon isn’t the only retailer causing enormous harm, but it stands out because of its scale. It currently employs more than a million workers, making it the second largest employer in the United States. In 2005, Amazon launched its Prime program, which offers subscribers free two-day shipping, pioneering a new norm in the retail industry for fast delivery, one that competitors like Target and Walmart have copied. Today, Amazon has 153 million Prime members who pay $119 a year and spend an average of $1,400 a year on the site.
Two-day shipping fueled Amazon’s growth, but it came at a cost to warehouse employees and truck drivers, who must work at a backbreaking pace to ensure products are delivered on time. “There is a specific human cost to fast shipping,” says Sheheryar Kaoosji, the director of Warehouse Worker Resource Center in Los Angeles, which works closely with Amazon workers. “There’s no magic to it. Stuff moves fast because workers run, because drivers blow stop signs, just to be able to make their quotas.”
The majority of Amazon’s employees, 850,000, work in the company’s 110 distribution centers across the country, or as truck drivers. Amazon has consistently blocked these workers from forming unions. Within these facilities, the company has developed a tracking system to monitor workers’ productivity, creating what some have called modern sweatshop conditions. Drivers sometimes urinate in bottles because they’re expected to make 36 stops an hour, which often doesn’t leave time for bathroom breaks. If the company’s algorithm determines that a worker is too slow, they might be automatically fired, sometimes by a bot.
One study found that 5.9 out of 100 warehouse employees at Amazon experience a serious injury, a rate that is 80% higher than the rest of the industry. Agrait says the company is trying to reduce this injury rate. “While our rates aren’t where we want them to be, we’re investing heavily in safety, and are encouraged by the fact that our rates are trending downward, even with the headwind of our rapid growth,” she says. “We now have a team of nearly 8,000 dedicated safety professionals [and are investing in] training, tools and technology, [and] new processes.”
Still, as I started reporting this story, it became clear that I rarely need an item urgently enough to justify the human cost of two-day shipping. Previously, as a Prime member, I would notice our cupboards were low on things like toothpaste or peanut butter and I would whip out my phone to place an order, only to store these items for weeks before using them. I had lost sight of the difference between want and need.
The grueling pace leads many workers to burn out. A recent New York Times investigation found that Amazon loses 3% of it hourly associates every week, which means it has an annual turnover rate of 150% a year; the company has to essentially replace the equivalent of its entire workforce every eight months. Some reporting suggests that this is intentional, that Amazon doesn’t want hourly workers to stay at the company very long.
Amazon argues that some of this turnover is voluntary. “It’s important to remember that a lot of people may choose to only work with us for a few months to make some extra income when they need it,” says Agrait. “We find that a large percentage of people we hire are re-hires, showing that they will choose to work with us when they want to, then come back when it’s convenient for them.”
During the pandemic, when Amazon’s sales exploded, the company went on a hiring spree, adding 350,000 new workers who could earn at least $15 an hour and benefits. But many were putting their lives at risk. Between March and September of 2020, Amazon admits that nearly 20,000 workers tested positive for COVID-19; it has not confirmed how many of its workers died of the disease. Amazon workers, meanwhile, say the company was “attempting systemically to keep its workforce uninformed” about infections and outbreaks in its warehouses.
Ultimately, however, many workers simply quit their jobs, and Amazon quickly replaced them. In May 2021, with the pandemic still raging, Amazon chose to eliminate policies like an increase in hazard pay and double overtime. It also stopped allowing workers to take unlimited time off if they felt sick or unsafe at work. “The workers who left were replaced by another layer of workers who were desperate enough to want those jobs no matter what the conditions,” says Kaoosji.
The toll on Main Street
My family lives on a tree-lined street in a small town outside of Boston. There’s a coffee shop, bakery, hardware store, Trader Joe’s, and several restaurants. The storefronts aren’t glamorous, but they’re charming in their own way. During National Poetry Month, the shops inscribe short poems on their windows. These retailers help create a sense of community, but the pandemic exposed just how fragile they are. Over the past 18 months, several stores have gone dark because their owners simply couldn’t afford to keep paying rent.
COVID-19 was just the latest blow to the mom-and-pop shops that have been the cornerstone of American towns for generations. Over the past two decades, they’ve lost customers to Amazon’s low prices and fast shipping—and many haven’t survived. I’m ashamed to admit that I stopped shopping at independent bookstores because they couldn’t compete with Amazon’s dirt-cheap prices. (The new novel I wanted, Beautiful World, Where Are You, sells for $28 in bookstores and $16.80 on Amazon.) And to make the playing field even more skewed, Amazon is rumored to have not paid federal income taxes for several years. Meanwhile, small businesses must pay the 21% statuary corporate tax rate. A 2019 survey found that three-quarters of independent retailers identified Amazon as a major threat to their survival.
Alec MacGillis, ProPublica journalist and author of Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, traveled the country and observed how once-thriving Main Streets emptied out. This trend began with the expansion of big box stores like Walmart, but Amazon accelerated it. It has been particularly devastating to people in low-income areas, where many must travel miles to buy food and essentials.
But MacGillis argues that Amazon has damaged more than America’s retail landscape: It has deepened the gulf between the rich and the poor. Through his reporting, he met workers in poor neighborhoods who get up at the crack of dawn to work 12-hour shifts in Amazon warehouses to pack products for their wealthier neighbors. At a national scale, Amazon relies on the country’s lower classes to do the work that generates massive profits, which are funneled into wealthier parts of the country, like Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C., where educated tech workers earn a good living. This causes rent to increase in these cities, making it harder for small businesses to afford to stay open.
Amazon’s market power now spreads across several industries. Bezos has used the success of Amazon’s e-commerce operations to launch a streaming service; Amazon Video; and a cloud computing network, Amazon Web Services; in 2017, it also acquired Whole Foods. But MacGillis points out that simply abstaining from shopping on Amazon—even without boycotting the entire Amazon ecosystem—can still have a positive impact. “Avoiding Amazon.com as much as possible is a good thing to do, not just for some political reason but in a very specific way,” he says. “You’re doing your part to promote a healthier, more diverse retail landscape, including the local businesses in your own community. There’s real value to closing the app and actually engaging in the world around you.”
When asked about the toll on small businesses, Agrait says that these companies have been able to turn to Amazon to sell products online. “Small and medium businesses sell more than half of all the products purchased on Amazon and have created millions of jobs in their communities,” she says. “Our success depends on the success of our small business selling partners, and we invest billions to support them and help them connect with customers.”
Still, Amazon has made it easy for consumers to distance themselves from frontline workers, making us less attuned to the struggles of those who facilitate the very lives of convenience to which we’ve become accustomed. But we’re not stuck with this reality. As the pandemic recedes, McGillis argues that we can choose to put money back into local communities by supporting the small businesses in our neighborhoods. “Of course, we’re all subject to these larger forces of technology and globalization,” he says. “But we also have personal agency. Amazon’s success is a result of the decisions we made collectively as consumers to embrace this way of consumption, this way of life.”
It took willpower to break my addiction to shopping on Amazon. When my daughter was invited to a birthday party, for instance, my instinct was to browse for toys online, then get it early enough to wrap it. Now, it takes planning to pop into Henry Bear’s Park, my local toy shop, the weekend before. But as I’ve incorporated it into my routine, I’ve seen what I’ve missed. For years, I relied on Amazon’s algorithm to suggest products based on my browsing history and advertisers’ rankings, but in store, I’ve discovered entire worlds of eco-friendly and educational toys I’d likely never have seen, like Olli Ella dolls and Earth Hero blocks. I’ve also started to observe the many people who make stores like this possible: the woman who organizes in-store events, the expert who is well-versed in early childhood development, the worker who unloads crates of toys and cleans the windows. It’s true, I often end up spending more money than I would have on Amazon, but at least I know my dollars are going toward keeping this shop in business.
[Source Photo: littleny/iStock]
How Amazon changes you
One unexpected piece of my experiment is that I’ve discovered I really enjoy weekly trips to the small businesses in my town center. Last weekend, I needed a rake; I stopped by Wanamaker Hardware down the street. A knowledgable staff member in his 60s helped me pick one that was sturdy and light enough for me to handle easily. And when I looked it up online, I found that it was actually cheaper than what I would have paid on Amazon. It occurred to me that Amazon’s convenience is, in many ways, a lie. Buying this rake at a brick-and-mortar store was faster and less expensive, and being able to get in-person advice ensured I didn’t buy the wrong thing—something that happens to me frequently on Amazon and involves a time-consuming returns process (which is itself terrible for the environment).
It’s worth asking how we came to believe that buying a rake from the comfort of our couch is somehow a better alternative than popping into a store. Elizabeth Schwab, a professor of behavioral economics at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, says Amazon has nailed all the tricks that get consumers to stay glued to the site. And by cultivating this behavior, we develop habits that feel very hard to shake. “Amazon has created a highly functional site that pushes all the psychological cues that are so persuasive to us,” she says.
She points out that Amazon highlights the scarcity of a product by saying how many are left in stock; it emphasizes immediate gratification by highlighting how quickly the product will arrive if you buy now; and it de-risks purchases by allowing you to return it if you don’t like it. “There are also in-group effects happening as well,” she says. “Being a Prime member means having special access to deals both in the app, but now also increasingly in the real world, when you go to Whole Foods and Amazon stores, where you can get discounts on specific items.”
Amazon would like us to think that it’s very hard to live without it, but I’ve discovered it’s easier than I expected. Even before quitting, my partner and I took turns making weekly trips to Market Basket and Whole Foods. (I’ve found that it’s much harder to break up with Whole Foods than it was to split with Amazon.) Now, we’re more judicious about keeping our shared grocery list up-to-date, ensuring we also grab the toothpaste or the vitamins we would previously get from Amazon.
I haven’t stayed away from all big box stores: We occasionally go to Target when we need to stock up on paper towels, cleaning products, and pantry staples. My goal was to spread my dollars around, rather than pouring it all into Amazon. But over the past six months, I’ve also discovered a universe of small online retailers that deliver everyday essentials—and also happen to better align with our values.
Grove Collaborative, for instance, is a certified B Corp (which means it’s legally obligated to balance profit with social good) that curates sustainable cleaning and personal care products. Thrive Market sells eco-friendly food products at prices that are typically lower than retail; memberships start at $5 a month and pays for an additional membership for a low-income family. And one of my new favorites is Misfits Market, which combats food waste by rescuing high-quality organic produce that grocery stores throw out because it looks imperfect. (It’s possible that some of these companies use Amazon Web Services to power their websites, but MacGillis argues that this shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent; supporting other retailers has the direct benefit of helping them compete with Amazon’s e-commerce operations.)
Switching to these retailers did create some friction. Some of the brands require a membership to access free shipping, otherwise they have high minimums. Misfits Market charges a flat shipping rate of $5.50 on all orders, which was hard to swallow at first. But I had to remind myself that Amazon Prime isn’t free either: It costs $119 a year. These new sites have forced me to be more mindful about my online shopping, rather than buying things impulsively whenever I notice I need something. Now, I think about what we really need over the next month, and I often wait a day before ordering, just in case anything else comes to mind. I’ve also had to be more patient: None of these sites deliver in two days, unless you pay for expedited shipping. But I hope this also means that their warehouse workers labor under more humane conditions.
I have to admit that I did cheat once. I wanted to send my friend’s son a present before his first birthday, and I couldn’t find any way to get Tegu wooden blocks across the country in time for his party. So I caved and asked a family member to place the order on their Amazon Prime account. I think sending gifts to friends and relatives across the country will be more complicated this holiday season without Amazon or another big box alternative, so I’ll have to plan ahead and order early. (Given supply chain issues, this will be even more important.)
Do your choices matter?
Six months into quitting Amazon, I sometimes wonder whether my decision had any impact at all. After all, how can a single Prime member choosing to defect, out of 153 million, have any effect on the system? But both MacGillis and Kaoosji believe that putting your dollars elsewhere is a worthwhile endeavor. For one thing, it supports the many businesses that are trying to compete with Amazon. It also prompts us to break the habit of mindless consumption that Amazon has tried to cultivate.
And, ultimately, if we the consumers made Amazon, it’s possible for us to unmake it as well. “If you look at its history, Amazon has responded to public pressure around their climate goals, selling facial-recognition technology, and raising their wages to $15 an hour,” says Kaoosji. “The signals they take in don’t just come from their profits. They come from organizing, public engagement, and how people are speaking about the company. So quit Amazon, but tell the company—and everybody else—why you’re choosing to do it.”