The Moral Calculus of Online Shopping

I don't know too many liberals who shop at Walmart. The primary reason is principle—the company is notoriously cruel to its largely low-wage workforce, works to crush the faintest hint of a desire for collective bargaining with a ferocity that would be the envy of any early 20th century industrialist, and imposes vicious cost-cutting all the way down its supply chain. But not shopping at Walmart is also easy. The stores are rare in the urban areas where lots of liberals live, and elsewhere, there's probably a Target nearby where you can get stuff just about as cheaply (Target's own corporate citizenship is a complicated topic for another day). So it isn't like not shopping at Walmart is some kind of hardship or costs them any money.

But what about Amazon? A few months ago, Harold Pollack explained why he no longer shops there: nearly every sin of which Walmart is guilty, Amazon also commits. And the online world has its own particular sweatshop: the fulfillment center, where people who work not for the place you bought your book or toothpaste from but for a logistics company or a temp agency toil in conditions that are absolutely hellish. That's the topic of Mac McClelland's article in the latest Mother Jones, in which she spent some time working at a fulfillment center and reports on the physically brutal, psychologically dehumanizing, low-paid work that drives the cyber-economy.

I tried to find one excerpt to give the flavor of the piece, but you really have to read the whole thing to grasp the full awfulness of what it's like to work at one of these places, where you're treated like crap, you run around like a maniac for 10 hours getting objects ready for shipping, and despite the low pay you know there are a dozen people back at the temp agency eager to take your place if you slip up. If you've ever ordered something off Amazon or a similar retailer and said, "How the hell can they sell that thing for only three bucks?", this is part of the reason why.

So where does that leave us consumers? It's awfully hard, if you're just getting by yourself, to choose to pay more for the things you get every day. And unlike walking by the struggling Mom & Pop's Grocery to go to Walmart, where you interact with the people whose working conditions you know to be substandard, online you interact only with a bright, cheery website where all you have to do is click "Add to Cart" and you're done. The moral implications of your consumer choices are physically remote and concealed. But as online retailers, particularly Amazon, grow bigger and bigger, it's a question all of us are going to have to confront. I'll confess that I haven't yet begun my own personal boycott—the prices are just too damn good. But the moral questions are getting harder to ignore.

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