Editor's Note: The Amazon Tug-of-War

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

I recently bought a powerful fluorescent light bulb on 
Amazon.com to help fight off the darkness of this long Northwest winter. It gives off the light of a 150-watt bulb but uses one-third the energy, or so I am told. Unfortunately, the bulb was too big for my light fixtures. When I let Amazon know, it gave me a refund — and let me keep the bulb.

Thanks to Amazon’s incredible efficiency and customer care, I go to the site to buy everything from plumbing parts and 
Indonesian peanut sauce to backup power supplies and rare books. With the click of a button, I can have Christmas anytime I want.

I also like working with Amazon in my role as a book author. Not only does it sell and ship my books quickly and cheaply, it also markets the book to readers who have an interest in the subjects on which my book touches, such as Japanese history, adoption and race. 

As a business writer, I’m impressed by how the company continues to drive innovation, whether it’s in cloud computing, tablets or video streaming. While Amazon has had “billions of dollars of failures,” as CEO Jeff Bezos said at a recent conference, the important thing is that it has continued to experiment.

As a resident of Seattle, I love Amazon’s decision to base its headquarters near the heart of downtown. Within five years, the company is expected to have 10 million square feet of office space in Seattle, enough for more than 70,000 employees. With all those people able to walk, bike or use public transit, we’re getting a lot less congestion for every job added.

Yet, as a consumer, author, business writer and Seattle resident, even as I appreciate so much of what Amazon does, I also find myself feeling increasingly uneasy about the direction the company is headed. Not because the company is automating work and hurting book publishers. That kind of disruption is painful but inevitable. What bothers me is that Amazon has become famous for the way it burns out employees and lays off temp workers periodically to avoid breaking labor laws. Its suppliers, too, are often mistreated. To top it off, the company has shown little interest in assessing the impact of its operations on the environment.

Why should Amazon care about its social impact? Well, for one thing, since consumers like to feel good about their purchases, how they feel should be a consideration when Amazon thinks about how to provide good customer service. When I shop at Costco, I walk out knowing that not only am I getting a good product at a good price, but I’m supporting a company that has all the values Seattle cherishes: It takes care of its employees, promotes organic products and otherwise contributes to the community. 

When I shop at Amazon, by contrast, I’m often left with the uncomfortable feeling that I’m promoting a company which, for all the convenience it offers with its efficiency, its robots and its one-hour delivery, doesn’t particularly care whether it leaves the world a better place. And for that very reason, even if Amazon wins a growing number of subscribers to its Prime service, over the long term, it could find that its poor reputation as a corporate citizen erodes the depth of that customer loyalty while also alienating its fellow citizens in Seattle.

 

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