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Sultan: Should we stop ordering from Amazon?
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Sultan: Should we stop ordering from Amazon?

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A user on Twitter recently posed the question, “Is there a company you absolutely refuse to support for ethical reasons?”

It prompted nearly 3,000 responses. Walmart was frequently mentioned.

We also try to avoid shopping there given the company’s history of poorly treated and underpaid workers, many of whom rely on taxpayer-supported programs like food stamps and Medicaid while its owners rake in billions in tax breaks. Bernie Sanders has frequently and accurately pointed out, the Walton family makes more money in a single minute just from dividends paid on their family’s stock holdings than a Walmart employee does working full-time in an entire year.

That’s before taking into account the destruction of Main Street, the mom-and-pop stores across small towns, when the giant sets up shop.

Surprisingly, far less frequently noted was Amazon, the retailer that now accounts for more than one-third of all online purchases. There are 142 million Prime members in the U.S, according to estimates by the Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. And if you take a closer look at how Jeff Bezos’ creation has become so dominant, you’ll find practices that look a lot like — if not worse — than Walmart’s.

Alec MacGillis, an investigative reporter with ProPublica, exposes Amazon’s backstory and its impact on American cities in his new book, “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America.”

Columnist Aisha Sultan interviews author Alec MacGillis about what ordinary shoppers may not realize about the online retailer Amazon. See more in her Sunday column. 

It’s not surprising to learn that warehouse jobs are dangerous and isolating, although the coverups in how accidents are reported and investigated are infuriating. It’s been reported before that delivery and factory workers will resort to urinating in bottles and defecating in bags to keep up with grueling schedules. One of Amazon’s social media employees recently tried to cast doubt on these accounts by asking why workers would continue to work in such conditions.

Well, it’s the same reason workers have stayed in difficult and underpaid jobs since the beginning of time — it beats starving when there are few other better opportunities. Amazon’s efforts to destroy union activity is proving as effective as Walmart’s.

But the truly shocking revelations in MacGillis’ work are the way public officials, local and state, have bent over backward — agreeing to secrecy and giving enormous tax breaks — to a company that reported a net income of $21.33 billion in 2020. It’s eye opening to read the ways Amazon has squashed local competition and consolidated its power through government contracts.

Jeff Bezos and the Waltons are billionaires cut from the same cloth. They know there will always be a market for the cheapest products, often imported from China, in a country where the middle class continues to lose economic ground.

Amazon, however, has done a far better PR job in how the company is perceived, especially among people who generally care about workers rights.

For many of the companies people cited as avoiding for political or ethical reasons, there are ready alternatives — Target instead of Walmart, Michael’s instead of Hobby Lobby, Lowe’s instead of Home Depot, Domino’s instead of Papa John’s.

But is there an easy alternative to Amazon?

Ironically, it may end up being Walmart.

Fueled by massive increases in online shopping during the pandemic, Walmart Marketplace has added tens of thousands of sellers in its long-term goal of challenging Amazon for ecommerce dollars.

Where does that leave buyers conditioned to shop for the lowest price and most convenient delivery? Either we try to avoid thinking about the millions of workers paying the costs of this convenience, which ultimately affects all of us except the most wealthy.

Or we get reacquainted with local and independent sellers, push back when elected officials want to give away our tax dollars to the wealthiest corporations in the world and support workers’ efforts to unionize.

Even if it takes a day longer to get a package, it’s worth it if fewer people are injured or killed on the job.

It’s worth it if more Americans can support their families working a full-time job.

It’s worth it if an Amazon worker has time to use a restroom.

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