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.
It 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.
Once 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.