Ethical Consumption: Breaking up with Jeff Bezos

On a warm Friday this past summer, I spent the evening with Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, or more specifically, I watched the PBS Frontline documentary, “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos.” The episode ran for close to two hours, and I was immersed in the story of the birth and dramatic growth of Jeff Bezos and his favorite child, Amazon. I watched the Amazon executives fumble for publicist-approved statements as they were grilled in interviews on the corporation’s issues with security and privacy, which stemmed from Amazon urging customers to bring Echos, Ring doorbells, and inevitably, the CIA into their homes. Next, Amazon’s attack-dog competitiveness to become a monopoly included a war on a mom-and-pop bookstore. Finally, the video addressed Amazon’s mistreatment of its employees, as the company is seen pushing their underpaid warehouse workers to meet levels of productivity capable only by a machine. By the end of my evening screening, I had seen Amazon’s true colors, and I had one goal in mind: I was going to dump Jeff Bezos once and for all. 

Of course, this fury did not last long, and sure enough, in one to three business days I found a brown box marked with that oh-so-familiar arrow sitting on my front doorstep. But how else was I supposed to get a copy of Brave New World in the middle of a pandemic? I had to find some way to read Aldous Huxley’s critique of consumerism, and I was not going to turn down free shipping. The irony of that was painful. No sooner than a week after viewing the movie, the issue of Amazon’s poor ethics made its way to the back of my mind, and I was back in the palm of Jeff Bezos’s hand. Much to my own dismay, I even fell for the targeted advertising, as four SAT preparation books (which seemed to only differ in font) mocked me from my bookshelf and served as a constant reminder of my own hyperconsumerism. 

But the conversation on ethical consumption soon resurfaced as Kylie Jenner, the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire, made the news for not paying her workers in Bangladesh. Amazon was not the only company with unethical production and values. I did a background check on every object in eyesight, and what I found filled me with immense guilt. Zara has a carbon footprint the size of Florida. Lululemon is racist. Clinique tests on animals. Don’t even get me started on Urban Outfitters. I turned to thrifting as a sustainable option, but that came to a halt after an Instagram infographic informed me of my role as a thrift shop gentrifier. Though well-intentioned, I unquestionably contributed to a variety of social issues facing our world. I felt like there was no way out of this moral dilemma, and the faces of Amazon employees and polar bears started haunting me at night. 

The million-dollar question that then follows: is there truly such a thing as ethical consumption? Recently, the saying “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” has become popular across social media. In a world that values profit over people and the environment, there is no way to purchase from a corporation without inherently causing harm, whether that be the underpaid Amazon worker that packed your books, the gallons of water used for a pair of your jeans, or the deforestation taking place to make way for the land that grows your food. Capitalism is a pillar of our society, and as unavoidable members of society, it is nearly impossible for us to support our current lifestyles of Ikea dressers and MacBooks without the exploitation of people and resources, so to completely abandon capitalism would be unrealistic. 

“There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” recognizes that the problem of unethical consumption stems from our economic system, but it lacks a call to action. The phrase crushes the quest for ethical consumption and leaves too much finality around the truth of the system and is a lazy solution for the dilemma of ethical consumption. Though there is no perfectly ethical consumer, we can still strive to limit the harm of our shopping by raising awareness about the negative impacts of overconsumption and changing our habits to minimize our negative effect on the planet and the people that manufacture and distribute goods. I will not be breaking up with Jeff Bezos and his beloved cardboard boxes, but I will be doing my part, however small it is, in trying to minimize the negative effects of my consumption.