Ethical Review of Amazon – Part 1

It’s already three months since I asked you to vote in the poll: How Ethical is Amazon? In this post I’m going to show the poll results and also do an ethical review of Amazon. I’ve done a fair bit of research on Amazon at this point – the first post, above, touched on the carbon footprint of fast shipping and Jeff Bezos’s responsibility to make better use of his gigantic fortune. The second post, How much can you trust Amazon?, examined the tactics that Amazon uses to sell more stuff and warned that, despite the fact that so many pay for Prime membership, Amazon is often not a trustworthy or even particularly good retailer.

I’ve been spending time looking through Amazon’s 2020 sustainability report and putting together some thoughts on how Amazon ranks for social and environmental impact. But I think I will cover that in a later post and do a shorter post for now that’s more personal and probably more representative of how most people’s Green Stars reviews would look.

The reality is that most people don’t have the time to do an in depth analysis of each company that they want to evaluate. And that’s fine – it’s totally valid to write a review based on one or two aspects of the company. As I’ve discussed before, this is how most reviews work – each person looks at a company from a slightly different perspective and the final average score reflects all of the different opinions.

Before I get to my own review, I’ll summarize the poll results.

How ethical is Amazon? Poll results

Thank you for voting in the Amazon poll – Here are the results in chart form:

Ethical Review of Amazon. Results from the reader poll, How Ethical is Amazon?, are broken down to show the spread of ratings from 1 to 5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact.

The average ethical rating for Amazon from the poll is 1.2 Green Stars (out of 5).

The median score (the midpoint of the votes) is similar: 1 Green Star.

Besides zero, the score that got the most votes was 2 Green Stars

The typical way of computing a score is to take the average, so let’s stick with that – 1.2 out of 5 Green Stars. This suggests an opinion that Amazon is significantly worse than your typical retailer – somewhere between bad and terrible.

Ethical Review of Amazon. The average rating from the user poll (How Ethical is Amazon?) is 1.2 Green Stars - this is shown as a graphic below the Amazon.com logo.

So here’s my short review on Amazon that’s based on a couple of issues that were already on my mind…

Ethical Review of Amazon

In the early days of Amazon, I used to weigh the downsides against the potential environmental benefits. Online retail can in theory offer the benefit of reducing the carbon footprint of stores (materials to build them and energy to run them). Efficient shipments can in theory offer the benefit of reducing individual shopping trips and consolidating them.

However, I came to realize that Amazon simply doesn’t value sustainability. I had a growing feeling of unhappiness with Amazon that spanned various topics but the last straw was the introduction of Amazon Dash buttons.

Amazon Dash buttons

Amazon Dash buttons were little branded buttons that you stick around your house, next to your laundry supplies for example, and could then simply push it to order more laundry detergent. That was the entire function of the button – you had a different button for each product that you wanted to order.

If there’s a little part of you that reacts to this by thinking, oh that’s kinda convenient!, don’t worry because you’re not alone.  Amazon put a lot of money into the Amazon Dash project based on projections that it would succeed.

Ethical Review of Amazon. A selection of Amazon Dash buttons are shown, each one dedicated to a particular brand (Tide, Glad, Bounty, etc.). Underneath this is an image of the Amazon Dash Button circuit board, showing the electronics that are required to make it function. How ethical is Amazon?

There are two things that irked me the most about the Dash Buttons and they’re fairly straightforward.

First, the buttons would encourage more shipments to be made, increasing carbon and packaging footprints. Instead of going to your laptop or phone to place an order for several items, you’d merely press the button and your single item would be on its way.

Second, and more concerning for me, is that Amazon would, at a time when everyone’s freaking out about the planet, collectively decide that this project is appropriate. A Dash Button entails the combination of a Wi-Fi-enabled circuit board and a sleek outer casing bearing a brand logo. In other words, it entails plastics, pigments, epoxy resins, heavy metals, likely conflict minerals, the solvents and other waste associated with printed circuit boards, and poor working conditions…

And for what?

The sole purpose of the Amazon Dash Button’s life was to increase revenue for Amazon. You can say that their consumer-facing goal was to make ordering a little easier for you, with your busy lifestyle. How easy does ordering need to be, considering that Amazon already has your details on file and you could already order with one or two clicks?

Amazon Dash Buttons were introduced in spring 2015 and then shut down in summer 2019 – Amazon suggested that customers recycle their buttons (as if that was really possible). I’d like to think that the Amazon Dash buttons failed because customers sat down to think about that little button and all of the different materials that went into making it, and whether it might be the beginning of the end for humanity if they say yes to it. In reality, the buttons were replaced by other mechanisms for rapid ordering – product subscriptions, automatic reordering, and Alexa. And there were other products in the Amazon Dash range…

Other Amazon Dash Products

There was an Amazon Dash Wand – a barcode scanner that would upload items into your Amazon cart. It was introduced in 2014 but was discontinued in summer 2020 and has become “a useless stick.”

Sucks for the people who paid $50 for it. Sucks even more for the planet.

But wait, there’s more! You can still buy the Dash Smart Shelf – a weighing scale that you put under your box of coffee pods or detergent that will order a replacement when you are running low. No more looking at things and hurting your brain trying to decide whether you need more! Amazon and their army of underpaid electronics manufacturing contractors will take care of it for you!

And if that’s discontinued? Don’t worry – just chuck it in the trash and signup for Amazon Dash Neural Implant – coming in 2024. Just look at any product and smile at it – the implant will upload it to your cart (and play a short Amazon jingle in your head).

Amazon’s ranking for electronics manufacturing

I don’t want to spoil this post by harping on about Amazon’s social and environmental impact as I’ll cover it in a future post (Ethical Review of Amazon, Part 2). But it’s relevant to point out Amazon’s ranking for sustainability and social impact for manufacturing electronics, such as the Dash Buttons, Wand and Smart Shelf. In its Guide to Greener Electronics, Greenpeace gave Amazon an F grade (Quote: “Unfortunately, Amazon remains one of the least transparent companies in the world in terms of its environmental performance.”)

Ethical Review of Amazon. The graphic shows Amazon's rating on the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, 2017. Amazon receives the lowest grade - F. How ethical is Amazon?

Greenpeace haven’t published an electronics guide since then, but more recently, the 2019 conflict minerals report from the Responsible Sourcing Network puts Amazon in the lowest of 7 categories (“weak”). The RSN score actually slipped from 2018 to 2019, indicating a negative trajectory. Concerns go beyond conflict minerals – for example, China Labor Watch reported on poor conditions at Foxconn (yes, them again) in 2019, doing contract work for Amazon.

My ethical rating for Amazon

You can learn a lot about a company (or anything) by examining just one aspect in detail. The important thing for me is that Amazon launched the whole Amazon Dash campaign knowing that it added nothing good to humanity’s situation. The Dash Button is actually one of the purest forms of profiteering that I can think of – it’s a product that exists solely to enable the ordering of other products. How metta!

So based on all the stuff I know about Amazon, but highlighted by the Amazon Dash button project, I’m in agreement with the average from the user poll and would rate Amazon around 1 to 1.5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact.

The future for Amazon: delivery by drone

I feel that Amazon has the capacity to really mess things up for us on various social and environmental levels. It’s already impacting work culture and consumerism culture quite a lot and there are two things happening now that concern me.

One is that Amazon really wants to get into drone deliveries and received FAA airspace approval for this, last year. They did a big promotional, er I mean celebratory, drone delivery to a lovely old man living in a cottage in bucolic England – he received an Amazon Fire TV remote/stick thing and a small bag of popcorn. Bless him!

The other thing is the recent news that Amazon executives were encouraged by Bezos to fight back, Trump-style, against anyone who questions them, like those pesky senators with their antitrust questions. It sounds like Amazon is getting ready to do just whatever the hell Amazon wants to do.

Putting those two things together, let’s just say that I will not be looking forward to having Amazon drones constantly crossing the sky when I’m just trying to maintain a human connection with the planet.

This evaluation continues with a post on Amazon ethics and social responsibility that includes analysis of Amazon’s 2020 sustainability report.

16 thoughts on “Ethical Review of Amazon – Part 1

  1. Now I’m hoping your neural implant comment is a joke. I’m so far out of the loop, I didn’t know about the dash buttons, but as I read about them, my internal dialogue said, “Next they’ll want an implant chip.” Then I continued to your neural comment, and I’m worried that it might actually be a “thing.” Oh, please, tell me it ain’t so.

    1. Lol. It’s just a joke… I hope!
      I actually had a graphic to go along with it but decided that it was a bit scary and I didn’t want to give Bezos any ideas 😀

  2. This is such a great post in a great series! I had no idea about the weighing scale, it’s so dystopian?! I don’t think we can get those here in the UK yet. I remember the dash button from a few years back *shudder*.

    It worries me just how widespread Amazon is. Almost everybody uses it, for the convenience, even though it’s quite widely known how dodgy they are ethically. They’re not even that cheap any more, in the UK anyway, but people still use them. I really, really hope that there’s a shift to more transparency for companies like this.

    Goes without saying I’m loving this Amazon series 🙂 thank you for writing it!

    1. Thank you, Sal!
      I think that many Amazon customers feel guilty about continuing to support the company – or at least conflicted about it. I expect that this may reach a tipping point soon enough…
      Thanks for reading!
      J

  3. I’m learning to count on your advice/research. Doing big anymore grates on me – and Amazon is big. On the other hand, I’ve an iPhone. Blah. I don’t want to be anti-tech. I want to believe we have the ability to deploy ethics in production so we can advance sustainably. Naive? Perhaps. On the other hand, I’m feeling very small nowadays. My vegan lifestyle choices and efforts to recycle are being challenged. I can’t defend myself with scientific answers. Thankfully, I can refer naysayers to you.

    1. Hey Frances,
      Don’t feel too guilty about the iPhone – we almost all need phones and it’s one of the murkier ethical decisions. There are many who love to pokes holes in our lifestyles (like going plant-based) but don’t waste too much energy defending your choices. Often these people come armed in advance with one or two factoids (sometimes accurate, often not) and they just want to feed on your energy or make themselves feel better about their (poor) choices. See, for example the There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism crowd.
      Hope you are well,
      J

  4. Somehow I am…not surprised? When I think unethical (in terms of the environment and otherwise, I often think Amazon. Still, I appreciate your breaking down exactly how the company has unethical practices environmentally.

  5. Thanks for posting this, and the ratings of companies as well, and Amazon’s place on the list. Makes me muse on traditionality blended with environmental consciousness.I can see Amazon drines being use for double duty. But I’ve read too much speculative fiction…

  6. I missed your poll. But, I pulled my books from Amazon’s publishing platform a month or so ago due to my dislike of their tax evasion and treatment of their staff. Ghastly company.

  7. I already can’t stand the noise of all the street traffic and now I’m going to have to compete with drones! The dash button is terrible, James. I can’t believe anyone ever used it. Soon it’s going to be like WALL-E with all the discarded circuitry and people in pools with their food delivered because they’re too fat or weak or lazy to do anything else. The fact that Amazon thinks people need a button to reorder laundry detergent is stunning in its myopic world view, esp. considering the impact of all the trash on the planet, plastic in the water, air emissions, etc., etc. :0( On a lighter note, happy earth day! Let’s hope we wake the F up soon!

    1. Hey Pam! Thanks for the reminder of where we might be headed – the imagery from WALL-E is appropriate indeed. Happy Earth Day to you too!

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