As the founder of Giving Beyond the Box, LCC, I think a lot about boxes. And it seems that boxes are a hot commodity now. Whether Blue Apron is delivering the makings of tonight’s dinner or Walmart is delivering our groceries and paper goods or Birchbox is delivering our monthly beauty products subscription, boxes seem to the medium of commerce these days. They are everywhere. And they are everywhere because of their appeal. They are convenient. They bring new products to our door. We save the time it takes to shop for ourselves and let others curate our tastes and preferences.
A 2018 report estimated that 165 billion cardboard boxes were shipped that year in the United States alone, equivalent to 1 billion trees. Amazon Prime alone shipped 5 billion boxes to its customers. We can certainly suggest that those numbers have grown exponentially over the past two years with more businesses moving from retail stores to online shopping.
Low prices? Delivered to our door? Shopping at our fingertips. What could go wrong?
When I think of boxes going wrong, I am reminded of the story of Pandora’s box, with its origin in Greek mythology. The name Pandora translates to “giftedness.” The story goes that Zeus ordered Hephaestus to fashion a woman out of clay. She would be the first woman on earth. He was to make a “beautiful evil.” Individual gods contributed unique gifts to this creation. These were riches that would confer great good upon the world. However, in the box that Pandora brought with her were “burdensome toil and sickness that brings death to men”, diseases, and “myriad other pains.” When Pandora opened this box, all the troubles that would befall mankind were released.
According to one dictionary, Pandora’s box refers to “a source of extensive but unforeseen troubles or problems.” I believe when we open a box from Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, we are opening Pandora’s box — releasing unforeseen troubles and consequences. In this posting, I am going to argue that the troubles presented by shopping at Amazon far outpace the benefits we get from this company. And, I am going to compare this Pandora’s box to shopping at companies that are socially conscious, respect the environment, empower women, employ marginalized folks, and more. In other words, companies that are good neighbors and citizens of the world.
When we open a box from Amazon, we release a series of problems upon the world. These include key elements of Amazon’s business model:
Ö Exploits workers. In the U.S., Amazon employs about one half million workers. Amazon touts its $15/hour wages, but those figures are misleading. Recently, the COVID pandemic focused attention on the working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses. Some well-reported firings of workers who went public with their complaints revealed the lack of worker bargaining power at the organization. While Amazon workers in the U.S are not unionized, those in France have negotiated better working conditions and labor rights. The power of Amazon unchecked by countervailing worker organization puts workers at risk, underpaid, and uncompensated.
Ö Trashes the environment. Amazon’s delivery system which promises next-day and same-day delivery is extremely inefficient. Promising to get a customer a product the next day likely means that the delivery truck in half full. The promise of quicker shipping is like candy to consumers, but it comes with an extraordinary impact on the environment. Amazon powers a fleet of vehicles that we see in our neighborhood. We are overrun with piles of cardboard boxes and mounds of plastic packaging. Some of this is recyclable but much of it is not. Given its size and power over the consumer marketplace, it would be hard, maybe impossible, to be good stewards of the environment.
Ö Receives millions in taxpayer subsidies. According to GoodJobsFirst, Amazon has received nearly three billion dollars’ worth of taxpayer-funded tax breaks in the form of property tax waivers, property, and sales tax exemptions since 2000. These are enticements from state and local governments to attract businesses like Amazon’s to their communities. The idea is that the jobs that these companies bring are more valuable than the lost revenue from foregone tax collections. But really, does this make sense? Very often, companies need to build plants and add workers anyway.
Right now, cities and states compete against each other to develop the most attractive package for big corporations. Some call this a race to the bottom with the biggest beneficiaries being the large company, not the local communities. Overall, there has been little oversight to make certain that these generous subsidies are worth it.
Ö Amazon workers need public supports. Amazon can also rely on taxpayers like us to support their workers. Many workers at Amazon receive SNAP benefits or as they are commonly known, food stamps. Some of these workers are part-time but others qualify for benefits because their wages are so low. How can Starbucks provide health care, tuition support, consistent hours, and good working conditions and Amazon fails to provide any of these across its labor force? Or
Ö Concentrates wealth and power. Jeff Bezos is by far the richest man on the planet. As of June 2020, his personal wealth was calculated at $189.3 billion dollars, adding 75 billion to his fortune this year. While the economy is tanking, Bezos and Amazon are thriving. 184 billion dollars sounds like ton of money but how do we understand this? If Bezos gave away his money, he could create 183,000,000 brand new millionaires. But do we need more millionaires? Or consider this. If Bezos were a country, he would be the 58th richest nation on the planet and his wealth would equal the combined GDP of the poorest 60 countries on the planet.
Ö Too big to be good. Many economists argue that Amazon is just too big. It has too many businesses under its umbrella. It constitutes a monopoly, not in the sense of industry concentration but in the sense of dominance over several industries – food services, server farmers, a leading newspaper, streaming services, facial recognition, online retail — It holds nearly 40% of online market share and the current pandemic has mostly likely further cemented consumers’ enchantment with online shopping.
These days unless you are a major retailer yourself, you are forced to sell your products on Amazon, and it is not always a great deal for you. Amazon dictates the terms. There recently have been allegations that when Amazon sees that a new product is successful, they often make their own version to outcompete with the smaller company, driving it out of business. Or if it is a stronger competitor, Amazon, like the other tech giants, simply acquire the competition as its own, further concentrating power and might.
Ö Pays little or no taxes. Like many major U.S. corporations, for many years Amazon has paid no federal taxes and instead receives rebates from the U.S. Treasury. This is not tax cheating. This is having enough money and power to dictate what the rules should be. They pay what they owe but corporate lobbyists make certain that the tax code works for the big players. Maybe, these corporations would be as profitable without these tax breaks, but these provisions make certain that they are successful. In some cases, tax breaks are linked to pledges of job creation in communities, but these promises are not always met.
The foregone tax revenues are in the billions, of course, and although we may critique how public officials spend our tax dollars, it would seem a better public good to have a debate about whether public funds should be devoted to health care or schools or infrastructure than to simply leave these dollars in the hands of corporations and their over-compensated leadership. True some are generous philanthropists, but many are not.
Ö Destroys Main Street and small businesses. The past decades have seen the domination of big-box retailing. So-called Mom and Pop stores – small independent businesses – with investments and loyalties to local communities are an endangered species. This is not just the fault of Amazon but their business model which has gotten consumers addicted to an unlimited number of goods (120,000,000 as of 2019), at lower and lower prices, delivered at faster and faster speeds puts competitors at a distinct disadvantage. Small and medium-sized businesses are simply out-competed and out-gunned.
Alternatives to Amazon
In comparison to Amazon, companies like Patagonia, Equal Exchange, Giving Beyond the Box, and Impact Everything, champion sharply contrasting values. We are part of a social movement that poses questions about whether the products we buy create harm or do good. We bring together and create products that embrace social value making it easy for our customers to use their valuable consumer dollars to do good.
Companies like these embrace workers’ rights, empower women, preserve the environment, implement zero waste processes, monitor supply chains, and more. When you open a box from one of these companies, you can rest assured that they pay their taxes, compensate their employees fairly, protect the environment and so much more.
As a former user of Amazon, I acknowledge I am responsible for making Jeff Bezos a multi-billionaire. Anyone who has used Amazon has had a role in making its founder a billionaire, in undermining small businesses, in making it harder for entrepreneurs to compete with its size and dominance and in creating an environmentally unsustainable consumption machine that delivers more and more consumer goods to us at cheaper prices and faster speeds. We need to support organizations and businesses that provide alternatives to Amazon.
We need to ditch our addiction to just one-click shopping. There is no argument; it is convenient. But here is an inconvenient truth. We are paying a lot more for the stuff we get from Amazon than our credit card bills reflect. Economists refer to these as externalities – all those costs borne by the workers, by communities, by the environment, by taxpayers – that Amazon doesn’t pay and instead uses the favor to further enrich itself and the richest man in the world.