One writer reflects on her relationship with Amazon and why she made a conscious decision to not renew her account after learning about the company's abusive and exploitative practices.
Looking back at my Amazon order history is a weird (and skewed) timeline of my adult life.
I subscribed to Amazon Prime in 2006 when I started college. In the 13 years that followed, there have been orders for short grain white rice that mark my first year in Chicago when I didn’t live near any Asian markets, an iPhone screen protector for my first iPhone, oils and herbs for when I went through a DIY hair product phase, significant spikes in book purchases towards the end of undergraduate and through graduate school, gifts bought off of registries to celebrate newborns…and ends with gallery lights for work on June 17, 2019.
Accessibility to almost any product in the world and lower prices coupled with Prime free shipping is a hard deal to beat. And for the longest time I didn’t give my relationship to Amazon and the planet a second thought. My actions towards environmentalism were minimal. Sure, I turned the water off while brushing my teeth and unplugged appliances when not in use, and of course I recycled paper, plastics, and many, many, many Amazon boxes. Out of the typical “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra we’re taught from a young age, I was only practicing recycling, the very last “R” when it came to Amazon.
I emphasize the last “R” because it’s no coincidence that they’re ordered in that way. To be less wasteful, it’s best if to first eliminate excess (reduce), then reuse what you already have instead of consuming new materials, and finally recycle those materials when the product is at the end of its life.
Fast forward 9 years to April 15, 2015.
I attended a #Fightfor15 protest at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Right before the protest, I was sitting in class and a woman shared her experience as a part-time McDonalds employee earning the then minimum wage of ~$8.25/hour, not being recognized as full-time—thereby denying the associated benefits—despite working the eligible number of hours, and most vividly, the unsafe working conditions. To clean the grills, she explained, they should be turned off which would generally mean slowing down service. Instead, managers often encouraged workers to clean the grill while it was still on so no one would have to wait an extra five minutes for their Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, causing many avoidable burns. She said when someone was burned, it was common for managers across the franchise to recommend slathering mayonnaise or other condiments on wounds and to keep working.
Yikes. But what does this have to do with my Amazon account?
I’m getting there. From that day on, I’ve been boycotting national fast food chains and similarly stopped supporting large corporations that were reported to have similar practices of underpaying workers and unsafe working environments. This naturally included cutting fast fashion from my budget. While researching, I fell down the rabbithole of the environmental harms of fast fashion, which over the years has led me to avoid plastics, followed by steps towards a low waste lifestyle, and eventually, cutting meat (though I’m still an occasional pescatarian) from my diet.
This commitment to supporting livable wages and environmentally conscious companies excluded Amazon. When Amazon announced it was going to acquire Whole Foods Market in 2017, I begrudgingly said goodbye to Whole Foods and their beautiful cheese bits bin, but couldn’t bring myself to cancel my Prime subscription. If you had bet 20-year-old-Andie that she’d give up chicken nuggets, bacon, AND foie gras before ending her Prime membership, you would be as rich as Bezos himself. I made excuses for the growing monstrosity that was set on capitalist domination.
Guilt inevitably crept in. I started making purchases through AmazonSmile. I was actively reversing the cycle from not only recycling, but reusing many things intended to be single use, and more importantly, reducing both my spending on Amazon and purchases in general. I even requested no plastic packaging on my orders (which did not consistently work). My Prime account was being used more for shows and movies than items, so I was good, right?
Reduce, reuse, recycle...and then some.
An additional “R” that I’ve picked up is refuse, practiced in various forms. Is it something I really need? What is it made out of? Am I willing to make space for this? Who benefits and who is harmed? Typical answers in order: no, plastic or some other synthetic, no, some corporation run by white dudes, employees and/or environment. Not only do these questions usually end up saving me money, it is a constant check in with myself on what I value.
Then I became aware of the reports of Amazon warehouse workers having to relieve themselves in bottles because they were afraid of being penalized for “wasting time,” pregnant workers being fired, and worst of all, warehouse workers literally dropping dead in the middle of an aisle.
The countdown began. In April 2019 I made up my mind to let my subscription expire. I needed to take a hard look at my values and practice refusing. Bye Amazon.
Sometime during my childhood, I learned about the concept of mottainai, to not be wasteful, and generally equated it to the three Rs. In the last several years I have been involved with the Cycle of Food Committee as part of Sustainable Little Tokyo where mottainai is integral in its programs. Besides refusing, reducing, reusing, and recycling, my time with SLT has reminded me of the element of the all encompassing “R,” respect. Have respect for the item you are using, eating, or making, and have respect for the Earth.
My relationship with Amazon had become wasteful, from the physical packaging to the fossil fuel for the transportation of goods to my own energy financially supporting a company that I didn’t align with. The idea of respect as a part of mottainai continues to resonate with me and extends to respect for its life cycle and the people involved in that product’s life cycle. It encourages me to consider what it’s made out of and by whom, and under what conditions. There’s respect towards small businesses, community, equitable wages, myself, and my values.
It’s been 13 months since my Amazon Prime subscription expired. Surprisingly, I haven’t missed it. I don’t expect Amazon to care that I left, much like I don't expect any of the other companies I’ve been boycotting to care or even notice they’ve lost my business. And as an individual it can seem like a hopeless effort. Yes, I still want a lot of things, and I’ve since bought a lot of things. If you know me, you know I am no minimalist. For me, it’s more about using what little purchasing power I do have towards organizations and companies that more closely align with my values. It’s about the respect I have for the environment, respect towards others, and the respect I believe others should be shown, like through livable wages, healthcare, and kindness.
Lastly, a made up “R” since divesting from Amazon... relieved. I’m relieved that there is no season 3 of Fleabag for me to miss out on.
Hey you! Thinking about boycotting Amazon?
Clicking on Amazon links is a habit. Habits may take some time to change, but they can change. So many habits have altered during this pandemic and there are so many “new normals” — this can be one of them!
For random things, buy secondhand!
Local Buy Nothing Group
For new and old stuff, it’s 2020...there is a small business that sells somewhere that sells the item you are looking for. Support them.
Mottainai takes on a new meaning for this generation as our footprint decisions will be consequential to tomorrow's environment. Will we squander and pollute our precious natural resources, or will we develop cultural standards that sustain them from generation to generation? The decision is ours.
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