Amazon’s “Toxic Culture” Doesn’t Come from My Needs as a Customer

Oh Internet, I tire. I really, really tire of reading rapidly tossed off think pieces that want to make broadly declarative statements as if they were the first to ever encounter such an idea. For example, did you know “we like-we really, really like-to get things cheap”? Annalisa Merelli wasn’t sure you were aware of this, so she–along with too many other think pieces to name–decided that the New York Times’ article about Amazon’s toxic work culture was the perfect time to place the blame of that culture squarely where it belongs: on the consumer. Which is a bit of an interesting claim, since, as the Seattle Times noted–and they’re a good paper to note this, given their proximity to the tech industry in the last forever–pretending that Amazon’s “toxic culture” is something new and unique to Amazon is ignoring the history of the tech industry as a whole, which has long been noted for a toxic culture that grinds up and spits out contractors and employees as fast as it can hire them. The toxic culture at Amazon isn’t because of the people buying Method cleaner and cat food, Mr Clean Magic Erasers, razors, the occasional bed sheet set, or Dutch oven–it’s from the tech industry as a whole.

amazonprimeIt fascinates me that people want to jump on the Blame Prime Members bandwagon in their think pieces, rather than look at what it is Prime is offering people: dependable, rapid access to a wide variety of goods and services. I mean, I can’t imagine why a perfectly able-bodied society where everyone has a car and access and a well-paying job and plenty of time, and can buy completely ethical, fair-trade food and clothes and goods and whatever else they need or want whenever they want would find a service like Amazon Prime useful.

…was the sarcasm too thick there? It’s been a bit of a morning.

It’s not that it surprises me that a gaggle of able-bodied writers would overlook the ease and convenience and accessibility of Amazon Prime for those who have physical disabilities; I think those of us who are disabled are rather accustomed to society erasing us. It does, however, surprise me that they’re so quick to overlook other members of society: working parents, single parents, folks who live far away from shopping centers where they can find both clothes and hardware and home goods. Not everyone lives in a suburban landscape where Target is 15 minutes in one way and Home Depot 10 the other; even those who do often don’t have the time to run to every single individual store. Maybe their commute takes hours every day; maybe they have children and the sorts of schedules that are full of soccer practice and school and camp and who knows what else, because I’m not a parent but I certainly remember being a kid and having siblings and the “go go go okay everyone collapse and sleep” aspect of a full household. Some folks live an hour or more from services, either because they’re in the middle of a mega-city and these big boxes are on the outskirts and difficult to reach, or because they’re in the middle of a rural area and there isn’t enough population density to support many stores. Maybe they live in that perfect suburban area with a perfect suburban life and car and they’re foiled by working non-standard shifts.

Of course, all that presumes we’re talking about people with cars, and a lot of folks don’t have cars, for reasons as diverse as being unable to drive to being unable to afford the costs of owning a car. For these folks, public transit–not the best thing even in the best cities with public transit–limits their options even further. That’s extra time commuting, time on the weekends, time you could be spending doing laundry or working or being with family or resting or fill in this blank here. Relying on feet, bikes, and public transit is possible for many things, and people do it in cities around the world-and in those same cities around the world, the people who can afford it have their laundry taken out and their food brought in. Amazon merely offers an equalizing aspect to at least some of that (it’s not doing my laundry yet, anyhow).

And yes, for those of us with disabilities, Amazon, and Prime in particular, can be a life-saver. Or at least a life-enricher. There’s no fighting mobility issues in a store, no navigating canes and walkers and chairs around clueless people, no having to figure out how to get a disabled body to the store (especially if your disability doesn’t allow driving). There’s no worry about lifting things that are too heavy, no calculus around what you can carry and what you need and whether it’s worth it to hurt yourself in the short term so that you don’t have to go out again two days later.

For everyone, whether they’re a stay-at-home mother juggling triplets and exhaustion or a busy professional or a disabled lawyer or any other combination of Person you can hodgepodge together from the mass options available, Amazon offers convenience and dependability: you can order what you need and get a dependable timeframe for when you’ll get it.

All of this? Not the fault of Amazon. It’s the fault of a culture and society that isn’t set up to include the different, the ultra-busy, those on different shifts or without flexible schedules, or yes, the disabled. So by all means, yes, take Amazon and society to task for not taking care of people, be they employees or customers or citizens. But don’t take people to task for utilizing the services offered to them–services often available to folks in mega-cities with the income to support said secondary delivery services–so that they too can maximize their time and priorities. And key to this is letting the individual decide what’s important to them: for example, over at USA Today, Amazon Prime member Jefferson Graham decides that

after reading this piece, I can wait. I don’t care if a new lens for my camera takes two or three days, or even a week to get to me. I don’t need a drone to whisk out a package from a warehouse and get it to me pronto. I want the company I’m dealing with to treat the human beings who work there with respect, not force them into a climate of fear.

Cool beans. Immediacy doesn’t mean much to him, and from all accounts he is able-bodied and able to patronize other shops when he does have an immediate need, so he can decide that this is not a participatory system he’s okay with, so he’ll opt out. But you cannot hold everyone to a standard set by an able-bodied, well-employed white man. Ability-and responsibility to a broader ethos-is going to look different to different people; the priorities of an able-bodied driver who lives in a small city will be different than a disabled person living in a mega-city.

Folks want to dovetail this into arguments about conscious consumption and ethical purchasing, which is a good conversation to have: but also a brutal one, because as Emily Finke noted, this practice often takes free time, significant money, and mobility for accessibility–and we’re back to leaving a lot of people out with that equation. We’re also left with at the conundrum that many people simply do not want to face: if you’re living in America, your entire existence is pretty much predicated upon exploitation: your food, from produce to protein; clothing; electronics; oil. It is a culture built upon the exploitation of others.

Means&AbilitiesOnce you understand that, you can start taking steps that work within your life to minimize exploitation of others while meeting your basic needs: consume less, buy with mindful awareness, decide where your priority is. Do you want to focus on avoiding sweatshop-sourced clothing? Do you want to eat locally and ethically? Does something else float your boat? Okay then–go for it. But again, this is a matter of balance and individual preference, and the vast majority of us do not earn the money that would be necessary to make ALL the changes, from non-sweatshop-sourced clothes to perfectly ethical and humane and local food to renewable energy and more. So we look at our circumstances, and we decide.

I am disabled, and my mobility limited. I don’t drive because of this. And for me, I balance ethically sourcing my food with my desire to have a life that’s about more than trekking via transit and foot to different stores to procure what my cats, my husband, and I need to live a healthy life. Amazon, and Amazon Prime, thus suits a necessary need that no one else in society has met.

Rather than cast aspersions on the consumer within the culture, start looking to the culture itself for change–and demand those changes come from those most, rather than least, able.

Note: this post is based on a casual series of tweets this morning that blew up like whoa. You can read the thread and chaos starting here.

Chobani Learns That HowMatters – and so Does Science

HowMattersChobaniDuring the last Super Bowl, Chobani debuted an advertisement focusing on their use of natural ingredients and limited preservatives. It was an innocuous, somewhat bland, typically feel-good commercial, emphasizing that how things are made matters. And it probably would have gone largely unnoticed by media critics, science writers, and scientists, save for one wee problem:

Chobani extended the thought of the commercial to messages inside yogurt lids. But a commercial is 90 seconds of words and images; a yogurt lid is a lot less space. And in that space, they opted for the fatefully bad phrase:

Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #HowMatters.

They might as well have painted a bullseye on the label.

Since then, Chobani’s social media team mistakenly tried to take the tongue-in-cheek approach, realized it was backfiring even further, apologized, explained they use science, and reassured consumers that the #WordsMatter and they’ve discontinued the lids.
Overall, I’ve seen worse responses from companies, and chances are excellent that this will blow over and be nothing but Google search memories in another week or so. But a couple of us were chatting on Twitter about what Chobani’s ideal response would be, even if it included a bit more risk for the company.Yeah, I’m giving more helpful feedback even without being paid. What can I say, I’m inconsistent and it became an interesting problem to mull. We spitballed for a bit and then the conversation moved on, but the idea didn’t leave me. During what was undoubtedly procrastination on another project over the weekend, I realized that my ideal? Would be for Chobani to modify their #HowMatters commercial with the opening voice-over from Numb3rs:Numb3rs was an absolutely fantastic TV show created by Cheryl Heuton and Nicolas Falacci. No disrespect or infringements intended in using their voiceover sequence to illustrate how to make something “scary” and “alien” accessible; Numb3rs had several strengths, and one of them was how it demystified science. It remains one of my favourite teaching tools

Chobani uses science every day:
to pasteurize milk, to tell temperature, to isolate probiotics.
Science is more than formulas or equations;
and it’s not something to be afraid of.
Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries facing food production and safety in America.They could even go for a much cheekier take on the final sentence, although I think it might be too much: “Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries we know–like how to get great-tasting yogurt from farm to factory to your refrigerator.” Note: If you’re from Chobani and reading this, talk to Heuton and Falacci to find out who owns the rights to the Numb3rs sequence and properly secure permissions, okay?

How does matter, and so does the science behind our yogurt. At Chobani, we’re committed to using the best advances in science to benefit everyone. We’re not saying we’re perfect, but our minds are in the right place.


Chobani is right: how they got to 100 calories matters, and they have a great opportunity to support and boost the positive benefits of science and STEM in America, peeling back the curtain a bit to let people see how science is truly part of everyday life. In a society where fear of chemicals (and thus science) is growing, thanks in large part to misinformationThis is not a page of misinformation, but about. I try not to give links to bad information if I can help it. and lack of education, and when we need more rather than less people interested in STEM, this would be a small but significant gesture of goodwill–and it’d probably generate some positive PR, too.According to David Kroll, Chobani also has a personal apology to all scientists: if you were miffed by their message, follow this link to their customer loyalty contact page. Kroll says, “Simply fill out the form with your name and address and indicate in the message box that you are a scientist who was miffed by their message. You might also consider elaborating with a message like that of commenter memsomerville below. You’ll receive a coupon in the mail.”

Food is Complex

Food is complex.

That’s really the only conclusion I can draw after reading Francis Lam’s NYTimes article Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes, and the following back and forth Lam had with his friend Eddie Huang over at Gilt Taste, Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Food?

Because of paywalls and irritating things like “flaky commute wifi access,” I actually read the second article, Lam and Huang’s back-and-forth, first. This was probably a mistake, since it made me cranky in a sort of ineffable way. I knew I disagreed with the piece, but putting my finger on a single reason why was elusive.

Lam’s original NYTimes piece actually addressed some of the things that I think bothered me about the subsequent give-and-take. He did talk about how it’s difficult to start your own restaurant, and that non-immigrants may have a leg up there, not just because they may have the financial capital not accessible to new immigrants, but because they have the innate cultural knowledge necessary to start a business, especially one as volatile as a restaurant. Pulling back to my education, and piggybacking on what Chefs Bayless and Ricker, as well as Dr. Ray, said in Lam’s article, there is a bilingualism in cooking food from another culture that allows these chefs to be liminal people – they become translators understanding both cultures.

Anyone who has learned another language in a formal setting will come across the word “gloss.” It’s a translation or interpretation of a word. There are linear glosses: champignons versus mushrooms, for example. But then you have interlinear glosses, when you have to understand not only the words but the structure of the language itself. The interlinear gloss I’m most familiar with is that of American Sign Language, given that it’s my second language. Here’s an example, via Wikipedia:

“I don’t like garlic.”

Now, picky linguistics people will note that this also contains prosody – telling you the emotional inflection of what’s being signed. (The signs are in brackets, the prosody in superscript, and the interlinear gloss would be the structure shown in the written text, and how you’re getting “I don’t like garlic” from that series of signs.)

So what does linguistics have to do with cooking and food? Well, I think that what we’re seeing with these “bilingual” chefs is the ability to do what is functionally an interlinear gloss, “explaining” food from other countries in a way that is comprehensible to people who are missing the cultural connection that typically comes with food.

Which means that I pretty much agree with Lam’s basic NYTimes article. What, then, was my issue with the followup in Gilt Taste?

I think what bothered me, ultimately, was the lack of focus on the things Lam did bring up in his article: access, culture, and perhaps even desire. (For example, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at is the pub around the corner from my house. It’s Irish American food, it’s a pub, and they have no desire to be noticed by Beard. Does this mean that they’re not good food, or that I wouldn’t cheerfully put them up against some of the best “fine dining” I’ve eaten? No. It just means that getting the notice of a Beard award isn’t something that happens if you run a pub. Or food cart. Etc. Just like there are fine writers out there who will never receive any of the numerous writing awards: Pulitzer, Booker, Nobel, etc.)

What the Lam and Huang article did focus on was ideas of access and appropriation, with Huang apparently taking the position of gatekeeper: keep those damned whities out if they don’t have permission to be cooking the food.

Well, who gives that permission?

But perhaps worse, or at least beyond that, is this idea that Americans should cook American food. What is American food? Is it Native American food? You can’t really say “yo white person! Just cook things that the Mashpee Wampanoag or Powhatan ate,” because well – that’s not “white American food.”

There is no white American food. There are European foods – French and Spanish and Italian and German and so on for each country, each of which have been horribly butchered and beautifully elevated by American chefs and cooks. But none of them “belong” to American chefs any more than Powhatan recipes do.

Does a chef have to do a complex genealogy before being able to open a restaurant?

And then what in the world do you do with fusion chefs, like Morimoto, who come from another country and infuse local mishmashed American cuisine with Japanese standards, to amazing effect? Is he doing appropriation, or is it okay because he’s not white?

See what I mean? Food is complex, and this isn’t even getting into deeper cultural resonance tied to food and eating and social expectation and experience.

Ultimately, I think that my friend Lisa summed it up best: there are a lot of perspectives in this issue, and it’s illuminating to see that there is anger over this issue.

From my own perspective, discussions of authenticity shouldn’t be limited to the “lesser” or “non-French-based” cuisines. We should always be discussing authenticity, provenance, history and skill – and culture should be as much a part of that discussion as education.

Attempting Goals – Weekly Schedule

The problem (okay, a problem – there are more than one) with parasthesia is it doesn’t give you much warning. One minute, your hands are working fie, and the next minute you’re marveling at your ability to both save the mug and spill iced coffee in your freezer, down front and back of the fridge door, all over the floor, and of course, all over yourself.

It’s hot, so at least the shower – although sooner than anticipated – was not unexpected.

Anyhow, there was a point there, and I think it went something like this: sometimes, you’re in the middle of living life and something happens to change everything. You either sigh, clean up the mess as best you can, and then go back to living best you can, or you sit in the middle of the kitchen floor and cry over spilled coffee and milk. Both are valid choices, but either way, you have to clean up the spilled coffee and milk.

Which is related, in ways that make sense to me, and might to you if you’ve seen things for a while, to the fact that a writer (and producer – would not want to shirk credits) I quite like and admire, Paula Yoo, happens to be on Twitter; she also blogs. Now, first of all, read her blog – she’s funny, she has adorable cats, and you will learn a lot. But, secondly and more relevant for this post, she just set up a new blog schedule, and I am shamelessly stealing it, with a few modifications. So this will be my schedule, with inspiration from Ms. Yoo:

Music Monday
As I’m making an effort to get back into writing, I’m finding myself listening to music again. Music is really interesting on several fronts, but I’m particularly interested in how we physiologically react to music, from having an influence on energy levels and heart rate to chemical changes within our brain.

Most of the time it’ll probably just be something like “so when I’m polishing an essay, did you know I listen to the Buffy Once More With Feeling soundtrack on repeat?”

Tuna Tuesday!
I have two adorable cats, and if they had their way, I would spend every waking moment worshiping them. While they slept, I would spend all my time explaining to you, via pictures and Venn diagrams, how they are The Best Kitties Ever. As a favour to everyone, I shall try to keep cute cat stories limited to Tuesdays. (Yes, Paula’s doing hers on Thursdays. To my ear, “Tuna Tuesday” is a more pleasant alliterative.)

Writing Wednesday
I’ve gotten extremely off-track with my writing in the past two years – once upon a time I blogged at four different blogs several times a day (you know, in the good old days of being paid to do that kind of thing). A lot of things happened that encouraged me to silence my voice, and I’m trying to find it again. Thoughts on the process on Wednesday. (Or you know, less serious crap and more fun stuff that I’m learning from obsessively studying writers under the Twitter microscope, reading, discussing in the writer’s group I’m a part of, or just general accountability towards my own goals.)

Pop Culture Thursday
Unlike Ms. Yoo, I am not a TV professional. I am, however, a pretty big pop culture geek – and it’s about time I got back into writing like it. My pop culture writing is what got me first noticed in the blogging world lo those many years ago, when I was actually recapping Grey’s Anatomy for the now-defunct Metroblogging Seattle. My irritation at House, MD became a bit legendary.

Foodie Friday
As long-time readers know (if any of you are left), I am a foodie from a family of foodies. I love to eat, I love to cook, I love to read about cooking and recipes and the whole nine yards; I even studied food ethics for a while. I think I follow more writers than chefs on Twitter – but not by much. Friday’s will be for recipes, restaurants, and …I cannot think of another alliterative. I’ll blame the time on that one.

Anyhow, it’s a bit of an ambitious goal to go from essentially not writing for two-plus years to writing daily and blogging at least five days a week – but hey, it’s a goal, and it even feels relatively sane and achievable, so far as goals go. And of course, the best thing is, I can write more if I so desire – it’s just that this makes sure that “less” doesn’t go below a certain number. So, starting Monday the 30th of May, we shall see.

Have Your Sleep & Eat It, Too

I have insomnia. (Thus explaining the time this is being posted.) It comes and goes, as insomnia is wont to do, and I’ve apparently been in an upswing period of late. A friend of mine on the other coast, who blogs over at Geek Girls Rule, is also plagued by insomnia, and sometimes I think we trade off on who has to be awake in some sort of cosmic balance. We’re defenders of the night, each taking shifts to maintain vigil over the sleeping world, in case… well, I’m not sure in case of what, being that about the only weapons Mickey and I have are awesome racks and rapier wits, neither of which are likely to save the world from imminent destruction. But, I digress, which is common when I’m tired.

If certain dessert-makers have their way, Mickey and I, along with the rest of the Sleep is for the Weak Not Cranky club really will be able to have our sleep and eat it, too. It seems that the latest fad is melatonin baked into pastries, sort of a pot brownies for the convenience store crowd.

In an article of concepts that jumped out and did a samba for attention, the Len Goodman-pleasing number was the idea that the makers of these baked goods label them as “not for food use.” This appears to be the way that Lazy Cakes, Kush Cakes, and Lulla Pies (all rotten tomato worthy puns) get around FDA labeling laws. You see, while using melatonin as an additive in food would be regulated under federal law (and likely not allowed), dietary supplements don’t need what’s known as FDA premarket approval, and (more importantly) are not required to be proven safe or effective.

So regardless of the fact that we’re talking a sugary Ho-Ho hopped up on a neurohormone, it’s perfectly fine so long as it’s a diet modifier, and not so fine if it’s just part of the diet.

It’s this kind of splitting of hairs that drives people batty – and leads to the odd regulatory issue where it’s better (at least cheaper) for a company to attempt the “dietary supplement” route and change if forced to, than to start out following the rules in the first place. It is, in other words, a bandwagon-seeking food manufacturer’s version of the choice to ask permission or to say sorry.

Much like the toddler who has figured out that if you say you’re sorry rather than ask permission, you at least get to do what you want, these companies know that it is both cheaper and more profitable to sell your food as a dietary supplement and hope to fly under the radar than it is to play by the rules in the first place.

It’s a broken system, and one that can cause harm to the people who don’t realize how unsafe what they’re taking could be – the lack of regulation in the dietary and herbal supplements market is extremely concerning. The solution here is simple: make it much, much more costly to ask forgiveness after action, and reward those who ask for permission first.