Is it time to boycott Amazon?

Yes, I am serious.  No, this is not just provocation for the sake of it.  Is it actually time to boycott Amazon?  Much as I want to say no (I use Amazon as much as anyone for my online shopping), maybe now is the time to actually break the habit and look elsewhere for my online retail needs.  A number of stories recently have led me to this conclusion and, unless I can be persuaded otherwise, I cannot see my view changing.

Now, perhaps I should preface this with an acknowledgement that I have not exactly been a cheer-leader for Amazon in the recent past.  I have written often (boringly so, some might say) about my reluctance to purchase a Kindle and to say I am not a big fan of their ebook business model (it lends itself far too readily to monopoly), is somewhat of an understatement.  So perhaps the fact that I have come to this conclusion has come as no surprise.  However, as I mentioned, I have long used Amazon to purchase music, films, books, Christmas presents etc etc.  I have, to all intents and purposes, given up shopping for such items in the high street.  If I want a film or a CD, Amazon is always my first point of call. But maybe not for much longer.

The first of the stories that has prompted this re-think is the news that, despite £3bn generated sales in the UK last year, Amazon has paid no UK corporation tax. Not a bean.  Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that despite this government’s argument that reducing corporation tax to 22% would help the economy, Luxembourg (where Amazon is based in Europe) has a rate of 28.8%.  The Guardian reports:

UK sales over the past three years, according to the SEC filings, were between £7.6bn and £10.3bn. If the same profit margin was applied, this would have generated taxable profits of £266m-£360m and yielded notional UK corporation tax of up to £100m.

However, in the nine years between 2003 and 2011, the UK-registered company has reported a cumulative net tax bill of just £3m – of which £1.9m was incurred in 2011. This is not the tax actually paid to HMRC; that information is not available because the UK company is not required to produce a cash flow statement.

Whilst Amazon are entirely within their rights to do this (no allegations of criminality have been made), it is disturbing to see how much money is draining out of the country to the benefit of the online retailer.  Every time a purchase is made at Amazon, potential tax revenues are leaving the country.  At a time of austerity and public spending cuts, can this really be justifiable?  After all, purchasing the same goods from another retailer based in the UK would ensure that money remains in the economy and result in an increase in tax revenues.  With that in mind, can we really argue the case against public sector cuts whilst also purchasing goods from a company that effectively leads to reduced revenue for the government and therefore reduce spending capability?  Should we not be acting as ‘ethical’ consumers and supporting businesses that to contribute their fair share of the burden?

And it’s not just tax revenues that have resulted in falling out of love with Amazon.  In September last year, one investigation revealed the conditions that their workforce endures in a warehouse in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.  Local newspaper, The Morning Call alleged that:

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

Whilst long, I’d certainly recommend reading the full article to see the kinds of conditions workers had to endure working at the LeHigh Valley warehouse.  Again, if these allegations are indeed accurate, I would find it very hard to continue purchasing my goods from a retailer that allegedly engages in such activity.

And, of course, there is the uneasy relationship between Amazon and public libraries.  Unsurprisingly given their Kindle business model, it’s not a  good relationship, certainly from the perspective of libraries.  In fact, as one blogger has put it, Ebook Readership Explodes; Amazon Strengthens Attack on Public Libraries.  In the article, Thad McIlroy reveals that 16 of the best selling Kindle titles are exclusive to Amazon (one for bilbary to ponder).  Narrowing it down to 13 authors (see the article for the explanation), McIlroy points out how many titles by these others are available via Overdrive:

What about the ebooks, I sense you wondering. Amazon makes its Kindle ebooks available to 11,000 public libraries (including Kansas) via OverDrive. Nope, not The Amazon 13. Not a single title was listed.  Not even the mega-bestselling Stephen Covey book.  The only member of The Amazon 13 with any titles on OverDrive is the late Kurt Vonnegut, and then only three of his books, The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughter-House Five. Surely they offer Player Piano, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewateror Breakfast of Champions? Nope.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether Amazon would be quite happy to see the end of the public library service (wonder is perhaps putting it mildly).  It seems fairly clear that Amazon sees public libraries as an obstruction to its plans.  It wants complete dominance of the book market and there seems little doubt its ultimate goal is to supersede the library service with its own lending model.  A lending model that can encourage ‘patrons’ to purchase more items from the retailer, creating effectively a captive market through the Kindle.  Offer books for free for a limited time via Kindle and it doesn’t take much to turn that into a future ebook sale.

(UPDATE: Since this post, there have been further developments in terms of Amazon’s Kindle – particularly its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library which has been accused by authors in the US of “boldly breaching its contracts”.)

So, allegations of tax avoidance, alleged poor working conditions for their warehouse staff and a seeming unwillingness to co-operate with libraries.  It doesn’t look good.  Whilst I have been a frequent shopper at Amazon over the years, I am afraid the time has come to give Amazon a wide-berth wherever possible.  Sorry Amazon, I’m just not that into you any more.

Update

It has been proposed that alternatives are also listed here.  If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments and I’ll add them to the following list:

 

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ijclark

Librarian and co-founder of a leading national library advocacy campaign, I have written articles on a range of professional issues for a number of publications including The Guardian, Information Today Europe, Library Journal and the Open Rights Group.