You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the recent flurry of articles on the topic of Amazon’s working practices. This latest wave was kicked off by an in-depth, researched piece published by the New York Times, titled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.
It paints a picture that is not all that surprising, if you take into account that Amazon is a highly measurement-driven, highly hierarchical workplace. You may take one side or the other of the open vs closed culture discussion, but you can’t disagree that Amazon is a highly refined, ruthlessly effective and sophisticated example of a closed culture.1
The New York Times article should not be surprising to anyone. Despite its attempts to legally muffle employees, stories of Amazon’s behaviour have been leaking out through the years. Not that long ago there was the case I covered in my videocast of Amazon lying to a big customer and being sued by one of its employees who was mistreated in the process. Everyone has heard of the famous warehouse story, where Amazon warehouse workers were made to work in hot warehouses, with ambulances lined up to resuscitate them when they passed out from exhaustion. There are other such stories through the years, and more recently following the NY Times article, if you search for them. Together, they paint a picture that’s hard to deny.
It’s impossible to avoid the obvious truth: by all appearances, Amazon is a company that dehumanises its workers and treats them like easily-discarded tools, that disregards even the most basic human decency, punishing people for getting cancer or having miscarriages, firing people for being distracted by a severe illness in their close family, encouraging the worst aspects of human competitiveness in the workplace. Amazon is a fundamentally distasteful, inhuman workplace. And yet it is also highly successful.
It’s not surprising that Bezos denies knowledge of these dreadful stories, declaring that “this article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know”. Top-down hierarchical companies based on secrecy and dehumanised meritocracy are not great at letting information flow. In fact, one of the stories I linked above involves one of the workers being penalised and then fired for going above his boss to point out a grave ethical problem. As David Heinemeier Hansson puts it, CEOs are the last to know, and declaring that this is not what you intend your company culture to be is not a valid excuse when this is in fact what your company culture is. Culture is what culture does, not what culture says it aspires to.
What led me to write this article, and put together the list below, however, is not just these articles, it’s a question put to us all by Joe Nocera in this op-ed:
For a data-driven executive like Bezos, this kind of culture is appealing, because it maximizes the amount of work a company can wring from fundamentally fungible human beings. The question Amazon’s culture raises is whether it is an outlier — or whether it represents the future of the workplace.
The future of the workplace
Does Amazon represent the future of the workplace? I believe the answer is no. I believe open cultures represent the future of the workplace, not closed ones. If Amazon is to be a pattern for our future, this is a bleak world indeed we are headed for, one which will make the futuristic, corporatist dystopias of Blade Runner or Alien seem prophetic rather than nightmarish.
Do you want to live in such a world?
More to the point, do you want to live in that world, knowing that you personally contributing to helping such a world come about?
Do you want to help bring about a world where humans are fungible and so effectively worthless, a world where the only values are those that can be counted in dollars? A world where you are only as valuable as your immediate market value? A world where coercion, through fear of poverty, is the main motivation for work?
If you do, this article is not for you.
If you don’t, then I humbly suggest to you, as I have to myself, to consider that through your own actions you may be helping bring about this world.
I believe that until Amazon reforms its ways and becomes visibly and transparently a company that is not rife with such awful stories, a company that has at least a modicum of respect for the inherent, intrinsic value of human beings as something other than means to an end, we should all, as human beings, be voting with our feet and picking better alternatives, because otherwise, with each purchase we are helping bring about this awful future.
Some may respond that all companies are equally evil. That is not so. There are many companies out there who adopt principles and values that are human-centric, not just for the bottom line, but because they believe those are the right way to contribute to this world. And even of those companies who are not so principled, most are nowhere near as ruthless to their own people as Amazon appears to be – they at least make some sort of genuine effort to try and care for their employees. Amazon doesn’t even bother pretending.
At this point in time, as people who buy things, I think it’s worth assuming that pretty much any company other than Amazon is better to buy from than Amazon. This is not always possible. Often Amazon can deliver more quickly and more cheaply – some would argue, by externalising a lot of its costs – and sometimes you just need that thing tomorrow… Sometimes Amazon is the only company selling the thing you need. Sometimes the price differential is so large as to make alternatives impractical.
But those are minority cases – composing maybe 20-40% of the times when we buy things online.
Amazon aims to be the “everything store”, but almost everything is also sold by someone else. All that I suggest to readers of this post is to consider the following UK alternatives, that I’ve researched for you, if you’re about to buy something from Amazon. Moving just half of your custom away from Amazon may well impact their bottom line and their growth in a way that will force them to change.
At some point, there has to be a tangible cost to treating people like shit on a large scale. This point is now, and the person who holds the right to pass judgement and to apply the sentence is you.
Here then, are some alternatives to Amazon in the UK.
Are some categories that are important to you missing? Let me know, and let me know what alternatives you recommend, and I’ll try to include them here.
The following shops sell both physical books and ebooks online:
- And of course, Apple’s iBooks, if you have a Mac or iPad, can also be a sensible place to buy eBooks.
Amazon is also a very convenient place to buy electronics. But there are alternatives, and sometimes they’re even cheaper, or have broader choices:
As a DJ, I care about this…
Music & Movies & Games
Most UK supermarkets do online shopping and delivery these days.
This list is by no means complete. But it should provide you with a starting point if you want to use alternatives to Amazon for at least part of your purchasing.
I don’t think it’s realistic to expect to move all your shopping off Amazon. I know I will still be using Amazon for some things. But if I can move even half my shopping off Amazon, I think that’s already something gained.
What you actually do with the information in this post is, of course, in your hands.
The future of work is in your hands.