The Cost of Conscientious Consumerism

A few days ago, I visited the Brown University bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, to look for some books on brand strategy.

Like many campus bookstores, Brown’s is packed to the rafters with school swag. Unlike many campus bookstores, however, Brown’s “Business section” consisted of three small shelves with maybe fifty titles. I have more unread books in my tiny apartment than Brown has in the entirety of its Business section. (It’s worth mentioning that tuition for Brown’s seven-week Executive MBA program costs $135,000 and the school itself has an endowment of more than $3.5 billion — presumably enough to stock more than just a few copies of Freakonomics.)

I asked the very helpful clerk at the desk if they had any of the books I was looking for. She told me they did not, and kindly offered to order them for me. I declined, and left the store.

It almost goes without saying, but I ended up ordering the books from Amazon. I saved roughly 40% off the total cost of the books and paid nothing for shipping, thanks to my wife’s Prime membership. This isn’t at all remarkable. Amazon Prime now boasts more than 100 million members, and the retailer handles more than 1 billion orders every single day.

By this point, you might be thinking that this is yet another blog post about the woes of shopping IRL, or the devastating impact of ecommerce on brick-and-mortar businesses— and you’d be right, kinda.

My ordering books on Amazon isn’t remarkable to anyone else, but it was a big deal to me. Not because of the price (which I doubt could be beaten anywhere else, online or IRL) or the convenience (I’d be looking at a wait time of around a week by ordering directly from the publishers), but because I try to avoid using Amazon whenever possible. I avoid Amazon because, as a retailer and a company, it’s no better than Walmart — it just has a slightlybetter public image.

Many Walmart employees have no choice but to rely on food stamps and other vital public assistance programs because Walmart pays its workers so little. Amazon warehouse workers are forced to urinate into plastic bottles because it takes longer to walk to the bathroom than they have time in their breaks. Walmart takes retaliatory action against employees who take sick days. Amazon warehouse workers have little choice but to live in tents in the woods because they don’t earn enough to commute to Amazon’s warehouses.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ personal net worth is more than $100 billion.

Effectively being forced to shop on Amazon made me feel really shitty. Not quite shitty enough to shop elsewhere, of course — and that’s part of the problem. The cruelty and indignity that Amazon and Walmart employees face every single day vastly overshadow the moral dilemma I experience whenever I shop on Amazon. Still, my recent adventures in Brown’s bookstore revealed that, for the conscientious consumer, principles come at a relatively high cost. I’m not talking about the inconvenience of shopping at crappy bookstores, but rather the guilt that comes from directly supporting an unethical company owned by a narcissistic megalomaniac that treats its workers no better than livestock.

As any good socialist would readily tell you, there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. But even so, we must reckon with the impact of our choices. I could have chosen to order the books I wanted directly from the publisher, or had my local, independent bookstore order them for me — but I didn’t. I bought them on Amazon knowing full well that somebody in an Amazon “fulfillment center” (a great example of Orwellian doublespeak that has wormed its way into our lexicon) had to process my order, even if they had to sacrifice a much-needed break or their health to do so.

My failure as a consumer may not be quite as terrible as Amazon’s failure to recognize the humanity of its workforce, but I can only exert influence over one of those things — and I still failed. My convenience mattered more to me than the ethical implications of supporting an utterly amoral company that earns staggering profits from the exploitation of its workforce. I feel bad about shopping on Amazon, and that’s a start — but it’s not enough.

We’re constantly told to “vote with our dollars,” but it turns out most of us are just as lazy about voting with our money as we are about voting in general.

I often find myself saying to people that living in the future should be awesome, but it isn’t. We shouldn’t dread the prospect of an automated robotic workforce — we should be counting the days until the robots take our jobs. Instead, we’re pissing in bottles and heading straight to our minimum wage job right after the chemotherapy that will bankrupt us. Well, I’m not. That’s probably why it was so easy to buy my books from Amazon.

Until we start caring more about the people who work in Amazon’s warehouses than we do about ourselves, there is little hope of accomplishing any meaningful change. Of course, that’s before we even start discussing matters of necessity. Walmart didn’t become the biggest retailer in America by developing a brand people love or offering its customers a superior shopping experience. It became the biggest retailer in America by savagely undercutting literally everyone else and exploiting its employees — just like Amazon.

Many people don’t shop at Walmart because they want to; they shop at Walmart because they have to.

I don’t have to shop on Amazon, but in all likelihood, those books probably won’t be the last thing I ever buy from Amazon. Realistically, it’s probably only a matter of time until the irritation of inconvenience outweighs my moral objections.

I’m trying to be a better consumer, but maybe that isn’t enough. Maybe we can’t stop this train at all.

p.s. In case you were wondering, the three branding books I wanted were Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman, The Brand Gapby Marty Neumeier, and Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler.