Amazon UK: A tough place to work, but Brits keep clicking

Despite a BBC investigation that found Amazon warehouse pickers labored under grueling conditions, a 'ethical consumerism' backlash in Britain isn't imminent.

Phil Noble/REUTERS
A staff member pushes a trolley as she collects orders at the Amazon fulfillment center in Peterborough, central England, last week. Amazon's British operations have come under scrutiny after a BBC investigative documentary uncovered unusually demanding physical labor in the company's warehouses.

It hasn't been the most sparkling run up to Christmas for Amazon in Britain this year.

A well known beauty company is taking the company to court for infringing its trademark. A group of high-profile parliamentarians are urging shoppers to boycott the Internet colossus, following revelations that Amazon dodges much of the hefty corporation tax that weighs on other retailers. With Amazon-bashing becoming a national pastime, newspapers are quick to cover its workers striking in Germany and its battles with the book trade in France.

Perhaps most damaging for Amazon's image, however, is a BBC investigative documentary that has revealed the tough and joyless working conditions that lie behind the easy, one-stop click-and-buy shopping culture Amazon has pioneered.

So will Christmas shoppers take note of all they are hearing and look for other places to buy presents this year?

Not a chance, say experts on consumer behavior.

“This won't affect Amazon's sales,” says Giana Eckhardt, a professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London and a coauthor of The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. “This is likely to have started a public debate and some people will express outrage. But people will go on ordering from Amazon because Amazon is cheap and efficient.”

Undercover exposé

In the BBC documentary, an undercover reporter armed with a hidden camera was put through his paces as a “picker” in a vast Amazon warehouse in Swansea, Wales, collecting customers' orders. He was directed by a handset that gave him a set number of seconds in which to collect items from shelves and tracked his performance.

The reporter, a fit young man in his early twenties, was expected to walk as many as 11 miles in a 10-hour shift, and find an item every 33 seconds. Meeting his targets – to avoid the sack – sometimes required running.

His exhaustion was obvious as he panted to the camera: “I've never done a job like this before … the pressure is unbelievable.”

An expert on stress at work, Professor Michael Marmot, told the BBC that this type of work led to an “increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”

However, compared to working conditions at factories in emerging markets that produce much of Amazon's inventory, UK-based employees are fortunate, not least because they earn a wage that is regulated by the government. 

In a statement issued in response to the program, Amazon said “We strongly refute the charge that Amazon exploits its employees in any way. The safety of our associates is our number one priority, and we adhere to all regulations and employment law.”

But even if it this was not the case, Brits would be unlikely to close their Amazon accounts, says Iain Davies, a marketing expert at Bath University. It takes a lot more than a run of bad – even shocking – publicity to make consumers change their behavior, he says, despite the growth of ethical consumerism.

Ethical shopping boom

Ethical consumerism – a vague term that covers a range of shopping choices from buying meat that has been farmed humanely to washing up liquid that does not harm wildlife – shows healthy growth, according to a report from the Co-operative Group.

The total British market for ethical consumer goods and services rose to £47.2 billion ($77.2 billion) in 2011, it said in its yearly report published in January, up from 46.8 billion ($76.6 billion) in 2010 and £35.5 billion ($58.1 billion) in 2008.

The average household now spends £989 ($1,600) a year on ethical goods and services, up from £291 ($480) in 2000.

But this does not mean that Britain is a nation of shoppers propelled by conscience, says Dr. Davies, who used to work for the fair-trade movement, which labels products for which producers have been paid a better price.

Most ethical retail sales are of food and household items. This is partly due to rising concerns about the origins of food following a series of scandals, including the discovery of horse meat in supermarket meals.

But it is also due to the success of products marketed as “fair-trade,” which are now a familiar sight in most supermarkets.

“The way you sell fair trade is by convincing supermarkets to stock it, not by convincing buyers to buy it”, says Davies. In time, he says, consumers come to perceive products labelled “fair-trade” as higher status than other items, “though they often don't know what they are buying when they are buying fair trade.”

Edible products are easier to market as ethical, say experts, because consumers mind more about the quality of what they consume than, say, what they wear.

Coffee, not clothing

The collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh in April that killed 1,130 people got extensive news coverage in Britain. The disaster highlighted working conditions in factories with the cheap labor that allows clothing brands in Britain and other wealth countries to sell cheap and make fat profits. But it did not shift the needle on consumer behavior. 

“Look how Primark [one of the companies to produce clothing in the factory] had its highest profits this last quarter,” says Professor Eckhardt. “People may feel very strongly about something but it has little effect on their purchasing behavior.”

What is needed to change consumers' behavior, she says, is some kind of big push, either from campaigners, in the case of fair trade; or supermarkets, who have made fairly traded or ethically farmed produce fashionable; or from government, in the case of recycling.

Most Britons now recycle much of their household waste after local government introduced bins and collections. “It's embarrassing not to recycle – when that sort of social pressure comes into play it can be very powerful,” says Eckhardt.

Sometimes, boycotting a product carries its own ethical risks. The Clean Clothes Campaign, which works to improve conditions in the global garment industry, does not endorse boycotts because it does not want to deprive poorly paid workers of their jobs.

For shoppers, in the end, economy and convenience trump other concerns.

Philippa Foster Back, director of the Institute for Business Ethics, says that when it was revealed last year that Starbucks was paying little corporation tax in Britain, the Costa chain of coffee shops won more customers. “Here, of course, there was an option to go elsewhere for coffee on the high street,” she says.

Amazon, as yet, has no such competition.

Sandra Martin, a housewife, says watching the Amazon documentary made her feel “a bit sad.”

“I thought about shopping around when I sat down at the computer to get through my Christmas list,” she says. “But I just couldn't face it.”

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