Is it time to abandon Amazon?

20 minute blogging project - Day 5

Anti-AmazonThe case against Amazon is stacking up. Its tax dodging schemes (ok, they are within the law but we’re talking here about ethics) are already well documented: US corporation which earns every year $89 billion in net revenues pays hardly a penny of UK corporation tax.

This weekend, the New York Times blew the lid on the alleged culture of bullying, intimidation and social Darwinism at the corporation’s Seattle headquarters. Then, in the UK, the Guardian again reported allegations -made  by the GMB Union- that Amazon’s ordinary warehouse employees are being made mentally ill by the ‘regime’ operated by the company. And it’s nothing new: the Daily Mail was reporting similar abuses two years ago.

Meanwhile, Amazon has rapidly consolidated its position as the world’s largest retailer, moving from books and DVDs to literally millions of items, overtaking and annihilating High Street chains and hundreds if not thousands of independent booksellers.

It was never meant to be like this. When Amazon first came to the UK in the late 1990s, it all felt slightly alternative, a bit like walking into Borders (itself to become a casualty of Amazon) and the ease of using the site was remarkable. In fact, it’s hard to compare the clutter of Amazon today with the clean, easily navigable site when first launched.

And of course, it has its merits: for some in remoter communities Amazon has been a lifeline; unlike some online retailers, the company will deliver to the whole of the UK. Amazon gift vouchers, too, are just fab – what other scheme gives quite such choice?

But it’s beginning to seem like there’s something very rotten in the state of Amazon. Maybe it’s time to stop all the hand wringing, do the right thing and give Amazon a miss…

Several years ago, at the height of the tax protests, I made the decision to stop using Amazon for books along with Starbucks for coffee. Starbucks was no hardship as I’d always found their coffee quite vile. However, even though I’d rarely used Amazon for much else, abandoning Amazon for books was going to be an extra expense I could ill afford – as a student and English teacher books are something of a necessity. And I’m aware too of how self-righteous such a decision can seem, plus my own double standards: just last week I bought one of my sisters (at her request) Amazon vouchers.

I haven’t kept entirely to my promise either not to use the site. Sometimes, it has been incredibly convenient to order a hard to find book and get it delivered to work – but for something like 90% of my book purchases I’ve used a local independent bookshop (often The Book House in Thame), Waterstone’s or Blackwell’s. Second hand books I’ve picked up at one of Oxfam’s well stocked bookshops.

It has cost more but to moan about that is rather like those who moan that FairTrade bananas or coffee cost more.

The Book House, ThameWhat’s more for a range of perfectly decent reasons, it hasn’t been a choice I’ve regretted. First, there is the experience of buying the books, but a Saturday afternoon book browse is hardly onerous – in fact, it’s one of life’s little pleasures, to lose all track of time in amongst the bookshelves. I freely concede that no bookshop could ever come close to the range of books on offer via Amazon – but a well run bookshop has well chosen books and it’s the bookseller’s wisdom and expertise which we rely on. And most bookshops can get in orders remarkably quickly.

Secondly, my attitude to books has changed. They are expensive. A full price paperback can be a significant chunk of cash. A pile of books as Christmas gifts a quite scary expense. But they aren’t disposable. If you buy a book, read it. Treasure hardbacks. The best are objects of beauty. Unlike a good chunk of those Amazon ‘must haves’.

Thirdly, let’s see this as about ethics. Not just the rights and wrongs of companies paying their way fairly and treating their employees properly, though those are important issues. But the types of towns we want to live in. Do we want to live in towns stuffed full of soulless culturally barren mega-malls, where independent shops have been wiped clean away? Or worse still, do we want towns with even more boarded up premises?

Of course, all of this makes me sound something of a technophobic luddite. Not so: the internet has transformed for the better so much and made many transactions infinitely easier, from buying train tickets (especially if you know how to ‘split’ at the right places) to checking bank balances.

But just once in a while, I’m going to suggest, it’s no bad thing to take stock, reflect and then maybe act differently. Which is what I hope some bosses in Amazon are doing right now.