‘It’s like a global totalizing project’: Amazon is much more than just an online marketplace

What these filmmakers think you need to know before clicking ‘Place your order’ Mari Ramsawakh

In just 25 years, Amazon has grown from an online bookstore, run out of a garage in Seattle, into a trillion-dollar company that occupies around 20 per cent of Seattle’s downtown core. The World According to Amazon, a documentary from The Passionate Eye, details the powerful hold that Amazon has on local and global economies — a hold that’s getting stronger with each new acquisition and government contract.

Sylvie Van Brabant, the film’s co-producer, and Alexandre Sheldon, the film’s assistant director and researcher, have big concerns about the company’s direction and the amount of power Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, holds.

The local impact

The impact of Amazon first became apparent on the local stage as the company began to edge out independent and small businesses such as bookstores.

“I think people only know how it’s easy to click into it. It’s easy to get something, easy to find,” says Van Brabant. “I don’t think they realize the impact on local economies.”

The closing of these businesses directly affected and continues to affect job opportunities. While Amazon is a massive enterprise that employs hundreds of thousands of workers, for every job that Amazon creates, two are lost in existing businesses, says Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, one expert featured in the documentary.

“Their genius is to satisfy clients, but it’s individual clients we are satisfying. We are not thinking about the commons, about society as a whole,” says Van Brabant.

The workers

According to the documentary, Amazon also has a huge impact on the lives and wellbeing of the workers it employs.

While the company has refuted claims that it does not treat its employees well, reports on workplace issues are common. The Atlantic noted that in 2018, there were more than twice as many injuries in Amazon warehouses on average than in other warehouses in the U.S. There have even been reports of deaths on the warehouse floor.

The New York Times reported on Amazon’s “bruising” workplace environment, in the warehouses and beyond, in 2015. “A lot of people I talked to personally had suffered depression, and there were even some suicide attempts at the headquarters in Seattle,” says Sheldon, based on his research for the film.

“They would probably prefer robots, and they are going into that area, but it’s very expensive and they still need workers,” says Van Brabant. “Workers are expendable. It doesn’t matter if workers burn out. It doesn’t matter if they have all kinds of problems ... the speed that’s demanded of them is too much, oftentimes.”

The company has also cracked down on unionization movements in their North American warehouses, says Sheldon, adding that Amazon even created its own education materials to train managers at Whole Foods (a 2017 acquisition) on how to discourage employees attempting to unionize.

National and global economies

As Amazon grows, so does its influence on national and international economies. “Something that I think people need to understand about Amazon is that it’s much more than an online store. It’s a project — it’s like a global totalizing project,” says Sheldon.

According to the film, the company’s remarkable growth rate can be attributed to the fact that it’s willing to invest large sums of money, often at a loss, in order to gain market share and eventually become the biggest retail interface in the world. The film describes how Bezos has invested billions of dollars in the Indian e-commerce market without seeing any profit.

As a result, Amazon is already treading into monopoly territory, Sheldon says. “If you look at online commerce, they actually control 50 per cent of that market. And if you look at the cloud services, I think they control like, a third of that market.”

Amazon’s political power

It’s not just the business world that Amazon is dominating. As the film shows, the company is  also influencing public institutions.

Seattle, Amazon’s hometown, currently has the third largest homeless population in the United States. Considering the city has less than a million inhabitants, the scale of the issue is staggering — especially since 30 per cent of the homeless population is employed; they’re simply unable to keep up with the rising cost of housing. The documentary says that since the company’s arrival, more executives have been moving to the city and rent has risen by 10 per cent each year.

In response, the municipal council introduced a new tax in 2018 that would force businesses that made over $20 million US in revenue per year to pay a $275 head tax for every person they employ. These funds would then be put toward constructing social housing.

However, Amazon campaigned against the tax initiative and, just weeks after it was introduced, the city council voted to repeal it. Three months later, Bezos announced a $2-billion private fund dedicated to affordable housing across the country. Meanwhile, Seattle is still trying to address their housing crisis.

“Usually, it’s the representatives that we have voted in who make the decisions, but not in the world of Jeff Bezos,” says Van Brabant. “In the world of Jeff Bezos, as a libertarian, it’s the private institutions that make the decisions.”

While Amazon has aimed to keep governments at a distance when it comes to taxation and regulation, the film says, it’s actively sought their data storage contracts. Amazon’s growing proximity to public data and government agencies like the CIA is a point of concern for both Sheldon and Van Brabant. The company is also now entering the worlds of health care and surveillance.

“For me, I’m a little bit worried [about] the amount of information that they have that would eventually harm individuals,” says Van Brabant.

Environmental concerns

At a time when environmental consciousness is considered by many to be a necessity, Amazon has been criticized for the overpackaging of its shipping boxes as well as its new plastic mailer envelopes, designed to conserve space in transit.

According to Van Brabant, roughly a third of items purchased online are returned. Most of those items, she adds, end up in the trash instead of back on the “shelves” to be sold again.

For the company’s cloud services, the sheer amount of electricity required to keep the immense servers cool is also a concern. “The amount of energy that is needed for air conditioning, which is running [all day], is anti-environmental,” says Van Brabant.

Facts from The World According to Amazon
  • Jeff Bezos is the world’s first centibillionaire
  • Amazon owns 250 warehouses and delivers across five continents
  • Amazon’s 120 data centres host approximately one third of all information available on the cloud
  • Amazon is the largest marketplace in the world, handling 158 parcels every second, adding up to five billion per year
  • Amazon now has about 300 million customers worldwide
  • In 2018, Amazon made approximately $233 billion US in revenue
Dealing with a ‘monopoly’

While Amazon may be having major impacts on society, this doesn’t mean consumers or government institutions lack the power to affect change when it comes to the company’s practices.

Van Brabant notes that activist groups like Athena, a coalition of more than 40 grassroots organizations, are trying to mobilize the public through education. “I think 50 per cent of the population in the United States has an Amazon account,” says Van Brabant. “If people become conscious of the effects … they can say, ‘Well, we’re going to demand certain things.’”

Sheldon believes the answer to breaking up a “tech monopoly” like Amazon — a characterization the company takes issue with — lies in regulation. “It’s been done before with Microsoft. It’s been done before with Standard Oil. I think that will be how we go ahead: questioning how to legislate these giants.”

It’s not about taking down the e-commerce or cloud services industries, but about understanding and controlling the impacts that a fast-growing company like Amazon has.

“In 2020, I think we’ve all been an Amazon customer at one point or another ... it is incredibly convenient, and they have developed a very impressive delivery and shopping system,” says Sheldon. “But it definitely has its consequences.”

Watch The World According to Amazon on The Passionate Eye.


Available on CBC Gem

The World According to Amazon

The Passionate Eye