When navigating the consumer world, people must always ask themselves what kind of moral compromises they are willing to make. Oftentimes, the convenient, affordable, and high-quality products offered by brand name mega-companies can come at a moral cost. Global conglomerates like Amazon can make billions of dollars and may even spend their money on harmful causes, all while many other local, small business owners suffer. Especially as college students, we all are drawn to convenience and cheap prices; but in deciding where to eat or shop, everyone must weigh the harmful realities of private enterprise. For that reason, NBN Opinion Investigates has set out to answer the following: what are the ethical implications of consumption under capitalism?
The responses for this piece were written before the announcement made last month by Amazon founder and longtime CEO Jeff Bezos that he would be stepping down from his post as chief executive. Nevertheless, Bezos remains involved with Amazon’s operations and is still the company’s largest individual shareholder.
Whole Foods is a 10 minute walk from my south campus dorm, barely half a mile away. On a slow day, I can walk the few blocks down, leisurely pick out my groceries and meander back to my room with a few minutes to put everything away and get back in bed before an hour’s even passed. They have essentially anything that I could need: from Ben and Jerry’s to sweet potatoes, cilantro to peanut butter. There’s comfort in knowing that I’m getting products made with Ingredients You Can Trust™. Besides, it’s about as reliable as a store can be: the produce is fresh, the aisles are full, and the selection is vast. Whole Foods is Whole Foods, there’s no questions about it.
It’s just convenient. It’s so damn convenient. Everything’s all in one place. There’s no need to hit multiple stores, to place preorders, to walk miles through gall force wind or to worry about availability, inventory, or standards. A trip to Whole Foods takes zero thought and checks every box for convenience, quality, and effort. The phrase “too good to be true” begins to come to mind.
The issue is that Whole Foods is just not a company I want to give my money to. For brevity’s sake, I won’t air my full list of grievances. But to name a few of my biggest issues: they’re staunchly anti-union, they have a history of squashing competition and suffocating local small businesses, they encourage complacent consumerism by offering far more Whole-Foods-brand products than goods made by small businesses, and they’re ultimately an overtly capitalistic corporation that doesn’t attempt to cover up the fact that they value profit more than people.
Beyond all of this, perhaps my biggest ethical qualm with Whole Foods is their owner: good ol’ Amazon. Jeff Bezos’ pockets, with $194 billion already stuffed in there, is one of the last places I want my money to go. I can’t stand giving more cash to a towering conglomerate that underpays and exploits their workers while constantly absorbing and disadvantaging small businesses. One that completely disconnects consumers from the processes and supply chains that get products to their door, pays virtually no federal taxes, and tightens their global chokehold on society with every passing day. Amazon already seemingly owns the world, and I don’t want to contribute to that.
But how do any other options stack up? In matters like these, it seems ethics come at the expense of convenience, price, and quality. Here is the very crux of this issue: under the current American model of capitalism, convenient consumption simply implies unethical practices.
This November, I decided to swear off Amazon. Swear is a strong word – what I meant was to wean off. To my disappointment, it was a trickier thing to do, especially around the holiday times. But I was determined, so I started my shopping early to avoid needing 2-day shipping. I used Etsy to shop from small, independently owned places and even sites like ThredUp to buy unique, thrifted clothing.
Since my decided Amazon cleanse, I have only ordered from the company on two occasions: once for extra-good chapstick (a necessity for Evanston winters) and another time for a book from a used bookstore (always look at the used section of Amazon for better prices and ethics). By the end of the holidays – and as I’ve continued to avoid Amazon to this day – I’ve been truly proud that I haven’t given any money to Jeff Bezos.
Why? Because Bezos is projected to be a trillionaire by 2026, according to Business Insider – despite a divorce and the economy-destroying pandemic. To understand just how incomprehensible his current net worth – about $200 billion – really is, here are some more digestible numbers:
- $1.7 million or 0.00085 percent of Bezos’s wealth = All the money the average American will earn in a lifetime
- $580 million or 0.29 percent of Bezos’s wealth = Annual cost to house every single homeless veteran
- $9 billion or 4.5 percent of Bezos’s wealth = Annual cost of chemotherapy for all cancer patients
I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that being a billionaire – almost trillionaire – is a moral failing. There is no reason why one individual should have or need that much wealth. There are millions of individuals in the U.S. who are homeless, can’t afford health care, food or other needs, and just a small fraction of Bezos’s income could help support millions of people for years if he cared to donate it. Take Dolly Parton for example (our American hero) who most recently pledged to donate $1 million to coronavirus vaccine development and is widely known for her philanthropy. In 2016, she donated $1,000 per month to families made homeless by fires in Tennessee. After that, Parton’s net worth is still $600 million. Donating to help those who are not as fortunate is no skin off celebrities’ back, and, as a society, we need to put more pressure on millionaires and billionaires to demand that they pledge to close the wealth gap.
Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of businesses I refuse to support. This includes:
- Home Depot, whose co-founder gave millions of dollars to the Trump campaign in 2016.
- Chick-fil-A, which, through its foundation, has donated to several anti-LGBTQ+ groups in its past.
- Jimmy John’s, because Jimmy John himself can be found in several photos posing next to his trophy kills.
This list, unfortunately, seems to grow everyday.
I can’t say I don’t miss the convenience of Freaky Fast delivery and the low prices of home supplies at the Depot, but designating certain, morally aversive businesses to be off-limits has allowed me to feel as if I am in control of my shopping habits. I can draw the line where I want, rescind my monetary support to companies that don’t share my values and find more ethical businesses to support instead.
So take that Mr. Jimmy John; I’m sure the sudden absence of my bimonthly $6 purchase has got your business reeling.
Yet I’m fully aware that I pick and choose where to employ my consumer buying power. For the companies not so easily replaced by Jersey Mike’s or Lowe’s, I sheepishly look the other way, trying not to think too hard about the multibillionaire I am supporting or the ecological damage I might be contributing to. The low prices, the fast shipping and the bigger selection are often just too hard to resist. So I continue to put money in the pockets of CEOs whose values go against my own, who exploit their workers and dodge taxes and get away with it all.
Yes, Jeff Bezos, I’m talking about you.
This is not a personal problem; too many people, I’m aware, feel the same way. So rather than swallow our guilt every time we order from Amazon, it is time we start acknowledging that this is not our fault. The system is stacked against us, and that system financially rewards us for being morally ignorant. Of course, we will buy the cheaper, more convenient option. It is unfair to expect otherwise. We should simply not be placed in a situation where doing so requires us to abandon our values.
So, instead of beating ourselves up about refusing to pay double or triple the price to buy an item from a more ethical company, let’s hold those who are really responsible accountable: the businesspeople and politicians that perpetuate and profit off our moral sacrifices. This means placing our votes where they count, and ensuring through protests and petitions that this problem gets acknowledged and taken up by those who hold legislative power. Until we attack the problem at its source, we will continue to unfairly blame ourselves for giving into the cruel capitalist system that has long-subsumed the consumer world.
Editor's Note: The views presented in this story belong to the writers and are not necessarily reflective of North by Northwestern as a whole.