Response: Is Being "Ethical" a Duty?
July 2, 2019
Is Amazon ethical?
Before attempting to answer that question, three bits of disclosure.
In 1997, shortly after Amazon went public, I interviewed founder Jeff Bezos. He made clear: “We’re going to be unprofitable for a long time. And that’s our strategy.”
I am a fan of the Washington Post. That Bezos seemingly has not interfered with Martin Baron’s editorial leadership since purchasing the newspaper in 2013 impresses me.
While I support independent bookstores and shop at them regularly, I enjoy using Amazon Prime to purchase books and get free shipping. I’ve also enjoyed both seasons of Fleabag.
The third of these disclosures gets at an ethical question raised about Amazon. Does its effort to get customers goods quickly offset the increased greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants resulting from speedy shipping? Of course, it doesn’t. Amazon knows this and indicates it wants to make half of its deliveries carbon neutral within the next decade.
Concern for the environment is an ethical choice. Amazon could speed up its efforts toward carbon neutrality, but customers—including me—are equally responsible for the effect these deliveries have. We choose to get stuff fast because it’s convenient. An ethical question for consumers: Does this convenience outweigh our concern about the environment? If it doesn’t, we have the ability shop elsewhere.
Questions about Amazon’s ethics go beyond greenhouse gas emissions. If stories about workplace abuse, discrimination, and mistreatment at Amazon are true, then Amazon has both a legal and ethical responsibility to treat its employees fairly. It’s not enough to suggest that if someone who doesn’t like the working conditions at Amazon can simply walk away. There is no ethical justification for abusing employees. If such cases occur, Amazon should be held accountable.
An old friend who has lived in Seattle for decades regularly bemoans the effect Amazon has had on his community since it located there. Housing costs have risen. Amazon’s presence, the old friend reports, has created a divide among long-time residents and the sizable number of Amazon newcomers. Resistance to this dynamic was faced recently in New York until Amazon pulled out of its plan to build a second headquarters in Queens.
Amazon does have an ethical responsibility to be respectful of the communities where it operates. If municipal governments are concerned about cost of living for their residents, however, they have the ethical responsibility to assess whether offering lucrative tax incentives to lure corporations to locate or relocate is in their residents’ best interests. Amazon may ask for lucrative enticements, but if they’re not in their residents’ best interests, municipalities should say no.
The federal government also has an ethical responsibility to assess the fairness of a tax code that legally permits Amazon and other companies to effectively pay little or no federal taxes. Amazon and other companies have no responsibility to pay more tax than legally required, although some might argue they should consider doing so. A better ethical question we might ask: Is our federal tax code equitable to both the wealthy corporation and the workers who keep that corporation running?
The Berkley Forum asks: “Is the purpose of a twenty-first century corporation to maximize shareholder value or to contribute to general social well-being?” The question is posed as an either-or. But if research such as that of John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett is to be believed, companies that focus on the “all the key constituencies (customers, stockholders, and employees)…outperformed firms that did not have those cultural traits by a huge margin.” (Really, you can look it up.) In other words, an argument can be made that companies that pay attention to the concerns of all of its stakeholders tend to financially outperform those which don’t.
If Amazon turns a blind eye to or promotes unethical behavior it should be held accountable. It should be held responsible for abiding by all workplace laws and regulations. Regulators also have a responsibility to ensure that the ways companies operate are legal, ethical, and competitively fair. (The Federal Trade Commission apparently is concerned enough about Amazon to have a look at the last of these.)
But consumers also have a role to play in deciding whether a corporation’s actions are ethically acceptable. In that 1997 interview I did with Bezos, he also said: “Long term, the only way companies generate value is by making profits.” If consumers don’t approve of Amazon’s corporate behavior, they can affect those profits by shopping elsewhere.
You and I may like free shipping and fresh episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but if our values are strong enough and we find Amazon’s practices ethically unacceptable, we can choose to live without them.