As I sat on the DART to work yesterday I noticed that the lady next to me was using a Kindle, Amazon’s popular e-reader that dominates the e-book market. As an independent bookseller and (I like to think) business entrepreneur I actually have a quite complex emotional relationship with Amazon and its Kindles.

Amazon are the biggest threat to my livelihood as it stands. Amazon’s dominance of a growing market with a reading device that ties customers to buying their ebooks from Amazon, and Amazon only, is both an impressive business model and also one that seems unduly restrictive for both customers and competitors alike. I personally remain convinced that ebooks and physical books can co-exist quite happily alongside each other, and that indie bookshops could also sell ebooks successfully, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is how Amazon sees things. “You can’t stop progress” is the phrase that always pops into my head when I think of Amazon, it’s taken from the film ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, spoken by a developer as a reason for building cheap apartments on a nature reserve. Sometimes it’s important to make sure we don’t confuse progress with big business, and allow important parts of our culture to be destroyed in favour of rich multinationals. Saying that, Amazon are incredibly good at what they do and they have become a favourite with consumers due to low prices and great customer service, something I can only admire as a business owner.

Interestingly, this time around, my first reaction to seeing the lady and her Kindle was “I wonder if she knows how unethical Amazon are? And would she still support them if she knew?” There has already been much outrage at clothing companies who source products from ‘sweatshops’ and the previous evening I had read another newspaper report on how badly Amazon treated its warehouse staff, likening conditions to that of a clothing ‘sweatshop’ where almost impossible targets pushed workers on low wages to their physical limits with the overhanging threat of ‘termination’ should they fail to deliver their quota. By using mostly temporary agency staff instead of employing workers themselves, they were no longer subject to many of a standard employer’s responsibilities. This tallied with a Financial Times report on a UK fulfillment centre I had read a couple of months ago, as well as ongoing stories from industry friends about what a difficult company they are to deal with, and to work for. On top of their worrying human resources record is their widely recorded unwillingness to pay taxes and therefore contribute to the societies of the countries they do business in. Again, perfectly logical in business terms and something that helps keep their prices down, but worryingly unethical in terms of what it means for our communities. It is also interests me that whilst customers save on individual items from Amazon, the lack of tax income this means for governments mean that they then levy their citizens with more individual taxes to recoup those losses. So, inevitably, the money still flows out by a different means.

This isn’t about Amazon-bashing per se. As Jeff Bezos has said himself “If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering”. Our bookshop continues to build year-on-year and we try to offer something different than you get online – personal service, discovery of new authors, recommendations, convenience and events that provide an added element to our customers’ love of books.  But it does concern me that whilst Amazon continues to grow and dominate the book industry, that it doesn’t appear to be an ethical company that cares for either its own workers, or the communities that they belong to. It’s true that with the distance the internet affords customers in terms of seeing who actually supplies your goods, and how they are produced, it is easy for a company to dodge their moral responsibilities. But ultimately it’s the consumer who decides how to spend their hard-earned money and a balance needs to be found between offering low prices and innovative goods, and being seen to support and help the communities that they serve.

The first step may be for consumers to become more aware of who they are buying from, and make a choice about the type of company they wish to support. With over 70% of recently surveyed 16-24 year-olds in the UK saying they had been ‘put off’ buying from Amazon over their tax-avoidance issues it appears that ethical shopping is still important to consumers and whether downloading for Kindle, or ordering for home delivery, the ‘sweatshop’ tax-avoiding Amazon appears to be doing itself as much harm as good in the public eye at the moment.

See Ethical Consumer for more info.