How I Quit Amazon: A Millennial’s Tale
Yesterday was May Day and across the US, essential workers at the country’s largest retail giants- Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, and Instacart- joined together in protest for better safety protections, working conditions, and pay throughout the coronavirus pandemic. While the protest didn’t slow operations or close warehouses yesterday, that isn’t the point. You might have seen something come across your news feed or social media in response to the protest, perhaps a call of action to stand in solidarity with workers by not making any purchases from these retailers on this day. You might have taken a moment to consider, perhaps for the first time, the fabric that holds together a mega-operation that is capable of taking just about anything from your cart to your doorstep in less than two days.
And this is where the protest was a success. Because awareness of any problem is the first step in solving it.
I won’t go into lengthy detail about the atrocious working conditions that have come to light at Amazon in recent history. You can catch up on that here and here. And I wont expound upon the conditions that exist to allow Amazon’s own Scrooge McBezos to sit on $139 billion- 20,000 times more money than the average American doctor will earn in a lifetime- while half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and tens of thousands of veterans from our imperial war machine are sleeping on the streets. Even if Amazon and its counterparts were a pinnacle of workers’ rights and environmental stewardship, do we really want to live in a world where a few sources hold a monopoly over an entire sector?
I’m not a fan of long diatribes with bleak statistics and no solutions. I’m an engineer, so I solve problems for a living. I believe in working at a micro-level to create social and political change. Everything that we wish to see change in the outer world we can start by taking steps to rectify in our own lives and communities. Everything we do has a ripple effect. And with enough people throwing rocks in the same pool, we can make some pretty big waves.
About a year ago, I started becoming more aware of the shadiness going on at Big A and its subsidiaries, so I started to make small changes to decouple my dependence on the Empire. Coming from the ethos of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and adding one more, “Repair” — Here’s a list of the major shifts in my own consumer habits that I explored. While I don’t expect all of these to work for every person in every part of the country, my hope is that some of these might inspire your own creative solutions (engineering in action!)
- Buy secondhand! Before I buy anything new, I check Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, LetGo, and OfferUp to see if the same or similar item is available secondhand near me. I’ve been able to find some amazing items — from brand-new West Elm furniture to houseplants to electronics- for fractions of the new item price. I recently got a still-in-the-box wireless modem from Marketplace for $35 (as opposed to $100+ new). My sister had her eye on this cute turquoise Ikea sectional, $1000 in-store. It was out of her budget at the moment, but by keeping a keen eye on secondhand sites (and using their notification settings), when the exact couch showed up, barely used by a bachelor who was redecorating, she picked it up for FREE. One might say that buying secondhand requires patience but I think it instills patience, something we can all use a little more of. There are very few things we need RIGHT NOW.
- Continuing on the secondhand train, thrifted clothes are where it’s at. I love taking an afternoon and hitting up my local thrift and vintage shops. Places like Buffalo Exchange are known for having trendy and even designer pieces. Adding a few unique items to your closet will give you a one-of-a-kind style that expresses your unique self and cultivates the habit of mindful shopping. If you’re looking for a very specific item, check out online secondhand clothes marketplace Poshmark.com.
- Repair before replacing! Got a piece of outdoor clothing that has a broken zipper or a tear? Many retailers like Patagonia and Marmot have garment repair programs. Just check their website to see return instructions and warranty information. I’ve sent pieces back without proof of purchase before; these companies are just great. The same concept often holds true for outdoor gear retailers. I’ve been a proud card-carrying REI member for a long time simply because their repair/replacement policies, outlet items, and garage sales create one of the best business models from a sustainability perspective. The repair mentality can be extended to many other possessions and clothes that still have usable life left in them. You probably have a friend who can sew- gift them a meal or offer to watch their kids in exchange for a little mending.
- Borrow before buying. Here in Portland, OR we have a neighborhood tool library. A 501(c)(3) organization, you can join for free and have access to a multitude of equipment. Many neighborhoods are creating similar, virtual tool sharing programs that you can find (or start!) on Facebook. The Nextdoor app is another great resource for neighbors to share tools and other items. In a similar vein, we also have a neighborhood kitchen library. I’ve used this to borrow platters, tea cups, and serving ware for an event I hosted. It’s a great option when you’ve downsized your kitchen but still want to entertain on occasion.
- Borrow before buying, continued. If there’s an item you may only use for a special occasion, consider borrowing from someone you know. For example, my work team recently set up an outdoor gear exchange that has made available a huge collection of specialized and expensive equipment to our group of nature-loving adventurers. In a shared excel sheet, we each listed gear that we owned that we were willing to lend out to teammates. This past winter, we had multiple ski-touring, snowshoeing, and winter camping adventures made possible by combining our resources. I also noticed that we started to develop closer friendships outside of work through sharing what we loved.
- Shop locally. It’s not just a nice idea or a way to let you take the moral high road. When you shop locally from a vendor that specializes in whatever its selling, you’re paying for information in addition to the item. Take photography equipment for example. Instead of spending countless hours researching consumer reports on cameras and then buying it at the cheapest price from Amazon or Best Buy, try stopping by your local photography shop. You’ll likely be greeted with the exact information you’re looking for from experts in the field who understand the needs of a range of customers, from beginner to professional. My local shop, for instance, rents out cameras and lenses for very reasonable rates, so you can try before you buy. In the information economy, this has real value. Think about what your time is worth. When you calculate the amount of research hours you’re saving when you invite the expertise of a real person, and you build on that by developing a relationship with them over time, you’re cultivating an investment with positive returns.
- Don’t need an item anymore? Chances are there’s someone who could use it. We’re all pretty familiar with organizations like Goodwill and Salvation Army who accept used clothes. These are awesome resources that will also take plenty of other donations, including household items, sports equipment, electronics, and furniture. In most major cities, you can schedule a pickup from Salvation Army and they’ll take away your furniture (as a note, for things like desks and tables, they only accept real-wood furniture). For items that are still usable but not something that Goodwill/S.A. could sell, reach out to your local homeless shelters and halfway house programs to see if they could use them. Last year I gave away a big box of still-usable plastic food containers to my local shelter and it ended up being something they were in short supply of. Make sure to get a receipt so you can include your donations when you file your taxes. The valuations are actually pretty decent and can end up crediting you a significant amount of money.
- If your stuff still has some value, try listing it for sale on any of the sources listed in #1. Generally, if the amount of effort it takes to sell an item outweighs the profit I could potentially make, I will just donate it instead.
- Reduce! Take a look at your transaction history over the past few months from Amazon. Is there anywhere you could scale back? With a little planning, you might start to see opportunities where you can buy the same items in bulk or from a small business when you’re in their part of town.
- Beat the system. I often use Amazon as a resource for finding products and citing reviews — and then go to the vendor’s website and buy directly or see if I can find it locally. Since the pandemic, you’ll find many retailers have developed a robust online game and more little guys are offering perks like free local delivery or curbside pickup.
As you can see, these aren’t hard and fast rules. They are merely options that I uncovered in my own process of taking a step back and asking the question, “If Amazon/Target/Whole Foods didn’t exist, where could I get this?” I still use Amazon sometimes for certain things that I can’t find anywhere else. The point is to take a step in the direction of change and do a little better than the day before. This isn’t a zero sum game.
All of the points listed above have one thing in common: they all take advantage of the powerful networks we now have at our fingertips through the internet. Communities are where the real change happens. The same platforms that tech retail giants have flourished under can be harnessed to create greater connection and collaboration in the places where we work and play. We all have a stake in the type of world we want to live in. Whether its your vote, your voice, your energy, or your dollars, choosing where to put them is revolution in action.
In the words of Margaret Mead, ”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”