Why would anyone want to avoid Amazon?
A one-stop-shop for everything from books to clothes to pillows featuring Nicolas Cage’s face photoshopped onto Kim Jong Un’s head, it has made it possible for almost anything you want to appear on your doorstep the next day.
But worker exploitation, tax dodging and invasions of customers’ privacy are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Amazon’s unethical business practices.
And while Amazon.com is their best known venture, they have fingers in more pies than you might expect; services like AWS, Twitch and even IMDb fall under their grasp.
It might seem impossible to remove Amazon from your life if you prefer shopping online—but you can still avoid Amazon to a degree by using some more ethical Amazon alternatives instead.
Amazon: A brief history
Photo by James Duncan Davidson
In 1995, Amazon began as an online bookstore operating out of Jeff Bezos’s garage. They were already making $20,000 per week within the first two months.
The company continued to snowball, and Bezos was named Person of the Year by Time magazine in 1999 after listing his company on the stock exchange. Time said that Amazon represented “a sign of the e-world yet to come, a place in which technology allows all of us to shop, communicate and live closer together.”
In the same year, Amazon reported $350 million in losses. However, Bezos was confident that they would be profitable by the year 2000—and they finally began to make a profit in 2001.
In recent years, Amazon’s growth has continued at a startling pace. In 2018 they near-doubled their profits (from $5.6bn to $11.2bn) and left their competitors eBay, Walmart, Etsy, Target, BestBuy behind to become the eCommerce king they are today.
They’re now the second-most-valuable publicly traded corporation in the world and amongst the four big tech giants Apple, Google, and Facebook. As an eCommerce site, they’ve replaced retailer Walmart as the new villain in capitalism.
4 reasons to avoid Amazon
Despite the convenience Amazon brings, it’s easy to find reasons to remove them from your life. Here are some of the key issues with the company and their practices:
1. Worker exploitation
Amazon has been accused of exploiting their global, 650,000-strong workforce in many ways.
In the UK, ambulance services were called out to Amazon warehouses 600 times over a three-year period. To put this number into perspective, there were only eight call-outs in a nearby supermarket’s factory of a similar size over the same period. Why is that?
Working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses can be draconian. UK warehouse worker Aaron Callaway spoke out about how he has to spend ten-and-a-half hours a shift on his feet, moving each item to the correct location in 15 seconds or less—or face a warning from his manager.
Such an exhausting and repetitive role has taken a huge physical and mental toll—“I feel like I’ve lost who I was,” Callaway says.
The conditions in the warehouses of Amazon’s Chinese suppliers are even worse. A 2018 investigation found workers in Hengyang were expected to work a 60-hour week (five eight-hour days, with two more hours of overtime each day and another ten on Saturday) for just 14.5 yuan (£1.66) an hour.
The undercover investigator who infiltrated the factory as a worker found herself expected to clean 1,400 Echo Dot speakers a day, using a toothbrush dipped in alcohol to remove any dust. She recorded her colleagues’ complaints of numb hands and sore necks, backs and eyes from performing the same action again and again for hours on end.
Four-and-a-half hours into her shift, “I was already so tired and my movements growing slower,” she wrote. “I brushed with less and less force. There were 20 or 30 speakers building up in front of me that I had yet to brush clean.” And when she had slowed down from fatigue, her line manager told her to brush faster.
When Bezos last year collected an award for “outstanding personalities who are particularly innovative, and who generate and change markets, influence culture and at the same time face up to their responsibility to society,” he told the audience: “I’m very proud of our working conditions and very proud of the wages we pay”
Earlier this year, when Bezos “challenged other large retailers to raise their minimum wage“, Walmart execs hit back asking Amazon to pay their taxes.
2. Tax avoidance
Amazon use various loopholes to pay the lowest amount of tax possible. Many big businesses do the same, but Amazon regularly make headlines because of the tremendous amount they hoard. They paid no US federal tax on the $11.2 billion profit they made in 2018, due to unspecified “tax credits” as well as a tax break for executive stock options.
In 2017, the European Commission found that Amazon had benefited from an illegal tax deal granted by authorities in Luxembourg, which allowed the company to reduce its tax bill by €250m over 2006 to 2014.
The case centred around two subsidiaries incorporated in Luxembourg and controlled by the US parent company—Amazon Europe Holding Technologies (described by the commission as “an empty shell”, with no employees or offices) and Amazon EU group, which transferred 90% of its operating profits to the holding company, where they weren’t taxed. Therefore, Amazon paid an effective tax rate of just 7.25%, compared to Luxembourg’s national rate of 29%.
Amazon also make a lot of money from taxpayer subsidies, further rubbing salt into the wound. It’s reported that their HQ2 project—a new corporate headquarters based in Virginia—will cost US taxpayers $4.6 billion, causing politicians from both sides to question the deal.
3. Market dominance
Amazon have achieved massive growth across many sectors by prioritising size over profit, which gives them a lot of leeway in terms of pricing.
Take Amazon Prime, for example. It’s undeniably a great deal. In the UK, you pay £10 a month as an Amazon Prime customer for unlimited, one-day delivery at no extra cost. This cost the company $28 billion in 2018, but they clearly think it’s worth it in the long run.
This is something smaller businesses or even other eCommerce platforms can’t compete with. So it’s no wonder that many have decided to join the site as third-party sellers: but they’ll have to give up at least 15% of revenue to sell on the site (and this percentage can often be higher based on warehouse and fulfilment costs).
But even if your business decides to sell on Amazon, Amazon will still be competing against your products—and as it’s their platform, the game is rigged in their favour.
Third-party sellers have to communicate with their customers through Amazon’s messaging system, which Amazon monitor. If Amazon believe you’ve violated their rules—by doing something as simple as sending the customer a non-Amazon URL—you can be immediately suspended from the platform.
Amazon’s dominance of the online marketplace has knock-on effects in the real world: the giant pays far less in business rates on its UK properties than most traditional rivals, further strengthening their hand against town centres and malls which already struggle to turn a profit compared to online retailers. Sociologists have long known that in-person shopping generates social and civic benefits for a community.
Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has been researching Amazon’s business practises for years and is troubled by the way the company seems not just to want to be the top online retailer, but to control the underlying infrastructure of commerce—and beyond.
Because aside from producing hit TV shows and publishing books, Amazon are slowly but steadily expanding their power into the physical world by building out their shipping infrastructure in a bid to supplant the United States Postal Service, as well as making inroads in healthcare and finance.
4. Privacy concerns
Through the Echo and Alexa, smart TVs and Kindles, Amazon is keen to record as much information about its users as possible. This data can be used to sell products, or sold on to advertisers and marketers.
Amazon-owned smart doorbell maker Ring made headlines early in 2019 when it faced claims that teams had “unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras”—including captures from indoors—despite having no need to do so.
Meanwhile, Amazon have patented facial recognition technology which could be used with their doorbell tech—by creating a database of “suspicious persons”, such as convicted criminals or registered sex offenders, it would be able to recognise unwanted visitors.
Although most versions currently lack a camera, the ubiquitous Alexa is also a privacy nightmare. Amazon have admitted that a team of thousands listen to selected recordings captured by the smart speaker, to improve the voice recognition software (these employees work nine-hour days, with each worker listening to as many as 1000 audio clips per shift).
Bloomberg reports that the “teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word—or come across an amusing recording.” They also claim that “two of the workers picked up what they believe was a sexual assault.”
Other Non-Ethical Amazon Competitors
Walmart is a go-to hypermarket for consumers, with not only physical stores worldwide, but also online marketplace Walmart.com. Additionally, Walmart owns the Asda chain in the UK, online retailers Jet.com and Shoes.com, and sells everything from home goods to groceries, clothes, and single-use items.
Although Walmart claims it is increasingly environmentally responsible, with so much ground to cover and a business model prioritising affordable prices, it’s akin to Amazon in terms of predatory pricing allegations, working conditions, and wages.
Newegg.com is an online store offering a wide selection of computer hardware, electronics, games, and accessories. It’s known for its good deals compared to other platforms, since it’s a specialist seller. Although Newegg states that it is “dedicated to conducting business in a lawful and ethical manner”, the company hasn’t made any efforts towards sustainability.
Unlike Amazon, eBay primarily offers third-party sellers a platform to auction secondhand items. However, Amazon and eBay have both evaded taxes, as well as failing to stop sales of invasive plant species which could have a devastating effect on native ecosystems.
Chinese retail tech giant Alibaba’s AliExpress is an online shopping platform quickly gaining traction in the eCommerce world due to its low prices. However, like most large retail companies, AliExpress has been criticised for predatory pricing and mistreatment of employees. Earlier this year, AliBaba’s co-founder Jack Ma defended a 72-hour working week.
Closing your Amazon account
There’s much more that could be said about Amazon’s unethical business practises. But if the above is enough to convince you to avoid the company and start using some ethical Amazon alternatives instead, the first step is to close your account.
To close your account completely, you’ll have to contact Amazon directly via their website.
👉 Here’s a good guide that will take you through the many steps you’ll have to go through to get it sorted—it’s almost as though Amazon made it difficult on purpose…
When you do eventually manage to confirm your cancellation, you’ll lose access to any digital content you’ve purchased on the platform, as well as your customer profile and account history.
If you have an Amazon Web Services or Kindle Direct Publishing account, you need to contact those teams separately.
Ethical Amazon alternatives: AWS/hosting
You might not have heard of Amazon’s cloud platform, Amazon Web Services (AWS)—but, essentially, it powers much of the internet, and handles data storage for everyone from Netflix to the CIA. AWS is where the majority of Amazon’s profits come from.
The bad news is that if you spend any amount of time online at all, it’s almost impossible to avoid coming into contact with AWS.
Netflix, The Guardian, and Airbnb are just a few of the thousands of services built using AWS—if you’re dedicated to fully and completely removing Amazon from your life, you’ll have to limit your internet usage to sites you simply can’t live without.
(Full disclosure: ethical.net is currently hosted on AWS – but we are looking into alternative options!)
However, if you’re simply looking for Amazon alternatives to host a site of your own on, there are plenty of options available to you:
Kualo are a hosting service with a focus on sustainability: they’re 100% green powered, run an energy-efficient data centre and even provide home working for staff to minimise travel
Netceteraboast a zero carbon data centre—they claim to have saved 2.4M KG of CO2 to date. They offer domain names, web hosting, cloud hosting, dedicated servers and data centre colocation. Netcetera’s UK-based Zero Carbon data centre is in the Isle of Man.
GreenNet are a not-for-profit collective, and have been offering hosting to supporters of the environment and human rights since 1985! They worked with organizations such as British Naturalists Association, UNESCO, and End Water Poverty.
Acorn Host offer green hosting for ethical businesses and organizations only, their ultimate package covers 20GB space and 500 GB bandwidth.
💡 For more recommendations, you can check out the hosting section of our resources page.
AWS might be nigh-on impossible to avoid (and bear in mind that some of the alternatives recommended below might use it!), but it’s much easier to take a stand against the other arms of Amazon’s business.
Take shopping, for example. If you’re willing to pay a little extra and wait just a bit longer for the goods to arrive, there are heaps of Amazon alternatives available to replace four of Amazon’s most popular categories.
Ethical Amazon Alternatives for buying Books
Hive give a percentage of each purchase to an independent bookstore of your choice.
Founded in Indiana, US, Better World Books donate a book to someone in need for every one they sell. They are a certified B corporation since 2008.
WorldCat connects people to the collections and services of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide, helping you find any book you search for at a nearby library.
And a special mention goes to which locates library books near you. Support your local libraries!
Ethical Amazon Alternatives for buying Baby products:
Founded by wife and husband, the UK company Babipur sell a range of ethically-made baby items; from clothes to food to toys.
Beaming Baby are a specialist provider of biodegradable diapers that are toxic-free and environment-friendly.
Ethical Amazon Alternatives for buying Jewellery
Wearth use only recycled silver and gold to create their pieces and they have a zero-waste, vegan and cruelty-free policy.
Made’s products are handmade by Kenyan artisans, and produced using reclaimed brass from the local area.
Cred use only fairtrade-certified gold, and also sell a range of lab-grown diamond rings.
Ethical Amazon Alternatives for buying Workout wear
Adrenna are a workout wear brand working towards zero waste production that is aiming to tackle mass-production in the fashion industry by offering custom made products.
As for “everything stores” to rival Amazon, there’s:
Ethical Shop is owned and managed by the New Internationalist magazine.
Ethical Superstore guarantees fair prices at every stage of the supply chain.
Veo is launching in June 2019, and their aim to become “the earth-friendly Amazon”
For second hand buys, try:
- Preloved: An online store for all things second-hand from furniture to clothes.
- Oxfam Online Shop: Oxfam, the charity fighting poverty, also supports second-hand clothing stores as well as an online shop for ethical-minded consumers.
Ethical Amazon alternatives: Voice assistant
It’s still relatively early days, but there are a couple of voice assistants being developed to rival Alexa/Echo:
Mycroft is the world’s first open-source voice assistant, which promises to never sell your data or feed you ads
Gladys is an open-source home assistant designed for smart homeowners; you’ll need a bit of tech knowhow to get the software up and running, but it’s growing into a capable tool
Ethical Amazon alternatives: Prime video / music
If you don’t want to support Amazon by using Prime Video, there are various streaming options available. Scoring high in Ethical Consumer’s UK video streaming rankings are:
British Broadcasting Corporation’s internet streaming platform BBC iPlayer (which you’ll need a UK TV licence to watch legally!) allows UK-based viewers to watch BBC programmes online.
Owned by Channel4, All4 is a video on demand service offering a variety of programmes recently shown on Channel 4, E4, More4, Film4 and 4Music.
BFI Player is a subscription service by the British Film Institute, to watch newly released films in the UK as well as old classics. The subscription is free for 2-weeks, then £4.99 a month.
Amazon Prime Music gives users access to 2 million songs and over 1000 playlists and stations. But there are Amazon alternatives to replace the behemoth. For example, Resonate is a community-owned music network that pays artists at higher rate for streams—what takes other services 200 plays takes them just nine. They operate with a pay-as-you-play model, with no monthly fees.
Ethical Amazon alternatives: Kindle
Since it was first released in 2007, the Kindle has helped to cement Amazon’s position as ‘the world’s largest bookseller.’ But the books sold through Kindle are also under a severe restriction, called DRM (Digital Rights Management). This means that Amazon can edit or remove the ebooks that you’ve bought at any time—they’re never truly your own.
Tech hardware is, of course, currently almost impossible to produce ethically; but with regards to data ownership and privacy, your best of the Amazon alternatives is probably Kobo, which sells DRM and DRM-free eBooks as well as eReaders.
If you live in the US or Canada, you can also buy DRM-free audiobooks at Libro.fm. And as the audiobooks are purchased from a local indie bookstore of your choice, you’ll also be investing in your community at the same time.
Web hosting, online shopping, video and music and voice assistants are the main pillars of Amazon’s business, but this is by no means the only areas they’re active in: for a full list of Amazon-owned businesses (including Twitch, IMDb and Goodreads), see here.
Over to you
It may feel like voting with your wallet is futile—but boycotting unethical companies, and, crucially, convincing others to do the same, are the first steps in driving the cultural change that will compel politicians to take action. After all, only after public outcry in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal are regulators seriously considering the tech giants as monopolies which must be broken up.
Some organisations lobbying for Amazon to change its ways are:
Global Tax Justice: campaigning for greater transparency, democratic oversight and redistribution of wealth in national and global tax systems
Institute for Local Self Reliance: the ILSR challenges concentrated economic and political power
China Labor Watch: dedicated to workers’ fair share under globalisation
Privacy International: a charity that challenges the governments and companies that want to know everything about us
And some further reading: