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, they’ve made it possible for almost anything you desire to appear on your doorstep the next day with the click of a button.
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 practises.
And while the commercial arm of Amazon 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’s almost impossible to fully remove Amazon from your life if you spend any amount of time online—but you can still separate yourself from their infrastructure 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 losses of $350 million, but 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 they’re now the second-most-valuable publicly traded corporation in the world, after Apple.
4 reasons to avoid Amazon
Despite the convenience Amazon brings, it’s not hard 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 numerous ways.
In the UK, ambulance services were called out to Amazon warehouses 600 times over a three-year period; three of these call-outs were related to pregnancy complications, and three for “major trauma”. 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 such a high rate of incidents? Working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses can be draconian. One 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 regimented role has taken a huge physical and mental toll—“I feel like I’ve lost who I was,” he says.
And if all that doesn’t sound bleak enough, 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.”
“The speakers that remained to be cleaned kept building up in front of me. The line technician came over and told me to brush faster and that my movements were too slow… but I no longer had any strength.”
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”
2. Tax avoidance
Amazon use various loopholes to ensure they pay the lowest amount of tax possible. The same is true for many big businesses, but Amazon regularly make the news because of the mindboggling amount they hoard; the giant made paid no US federal tax on the $11.2 billion profit they made in 2018, due to various 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 instance. It’s undeniably a great deal. In the UK, it’s £10 a month for unlimited, one-day delivery at no extra cost—a perk which cost the company $28 billion in 2018, but they clearly think it’s worth the outlay in the long run.
This financial clout—which many argue qualifies as predatory pricing—is something smaller businesses simply 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 fulfillment costs).
If your business decides to sell on Amazon and give them that 15% cut, Amazon will, of course, be competing against your products—and as its their platform, the game is rigged in their favour.
The business has 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 and your livelihood seriously damaged.
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 face-to-face 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—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.
And although most versions of 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.”
Closing your 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. You can use this tool to check where a website is hosted, and follow these instructions to fully block your computer from accessing any site using AWS on your computer.
(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
- Netcetera boast a zero carbon data centre—they claim to have saved 2.4M KG of CO2 to date
- GreenNet are a not-for-profit collective, and have been offering hosting to supporters of the environment and human rights since 1985!
- Acorn Host offer green hosting for ethical businesses only
For more recommendations, you can check out the hosting section of our resources page.
Ethical Amazon alternatives: Online shopping
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.
In the UK, there’s:
- Books: Hive give a percentage of each purchase to an independent bookstore of your choice, while Better World Books donate a book to someone in need for every one they sell (and a special mention goes to Worldcat, which locates library books near you. Support your local libraries!)
- Baby products: Babipur sell a range of ethically-made baby items, from clothes to food to toys; Beaming Baby are a specialist provider of biodegradable diapers.
- Jewellery: Wearth use only recycled silver and gold to create their pieces; 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.
- Workout wear: Adrenna are a workout wear brand working towards zero waste production, and Bam’s exercise gear is made entirely from bamboo! The big hitters of the ethical fashion world, People Tree and Patagonia, also have their own workout wear lines.
As for “everything stores” to rival Amazon, there’s:
- Ethical Shop: owned and managed by the New Internationalist magazine
- Ethical Superstore: guaranteeing fair prices at every stage of the supply chain
- Veo: launching in June, Veo aim to become “the earth friendly Amazon”
For second hand buys, try:
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 home owners; 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:
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, crucialy, 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:
Featured image: Ouch.pics