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AmazonSmile, Value, and the Ethics of Participation

AmazonSmile appears to ask very little of us, but what does it really cost?


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Nate Levin-Aspenson

3 years ago | 9 min read

Prologue

On July 15, 2019, nearly 100 workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota went on strike, formed a picket line outside the warehouse. They stood in that picket line for hours, wearing shirts and brandishing signs that read ‘We are humans, not robots!’

Workers, many of them immigrants from Somalia and neighboring countries, shared their stories of the mistreatment they faced as Muslim and East African workers at the hands of Amazon management.

They were joined in person by members of their local community and in solidarity by over 2,000 Amazon workers in Germany who also went on strike that same day. In Germany, the strike focused on a livable wage for employees and more bargaining power for Amazon employees. The rally in Minnesota focused on humane treatment and workplace conditions.

You may have seen some of the headlines about these conditions. Workers stretched to their physical breaking point on a daily basis. Peeing in bottles because a bathroom break would disrupt their quota and potentially cost them their job.

The details seem to confirm what the workers are saying. Amazon tracks their workers’ time down to the second, using an internal ‘time off tasks’ point system to justify termination if any worker can’t regularly meet the expected pace — one item pickup every seven seconds. Unionization and collective bargaining are actively discouraged, and workers who cannot keep up with the rigorous physical demands are often fired.

In Shakopee, the largely East African and Somali workforce felt that their muslim religious practices were not being acknowledged or accomodated by Amazon. The breakneck pace that workers are expected to keep leaves no room for the daily prayers that many muslims observe as part of their spiritual life.

The workers held their picket line even as a thunderstorm moved in, buffeting them with wind and rain. In the end, a flood warning forced the organizers to move everyone away for their own safety. They reported being pleased with how the rally went.

I. So why are we talking about this?

It is the holiday season, and for as much work as we put into selling the season of giving, many more purchases will be made during these last few weeks of the year than donations. Many of those purchases will be made on the website Amazon.com. That’s what I would like to talk about today.

More specifically, I’d like to talk about Amazon’s more charitable cousin, your friend and mine, the penny generator, the coda to many holiday newsletters, Amazon Smile (AmazonSmile, with no space, in the official branding). If I can admit to my biases for one moment, I don’t think Amazon is a very good company. I am not a fan of pseudo-monopolies and I think the way they treat their workers is a crime. You might agree, you might disagree. Smile, when we do talk about it, usually comes across in our online discussions in this field as kind of a waste of time but otherwise harmless.

If you don’t think of it as a waste of time, fair enough, I have some math for you in a later section. There are certainly many more efficient ways to raise money. Is that it, though? If AmazonSmile is just a low buy-in, low output fundraising tool, why is it worth talking about? Good question.

What I would like to propose today is that AmazonSmile is worse than merely a bad value proposition. It is a compromise of our core values as a sector, and it harms many of the people we make it our mission to serve. AmazonSmile is worse than a bad tool. It is a weapon we use against ourselves.

II. So what is AmazonSmile?

AmazonSmile is a corporate giving program rolled out by Amazon in October of 2013. By going to the url smile.amazon.com instead of their default storefront at amazon.com, users can select a registered charity to receive a donation from Amazon equal to 0.5% of the purchase price of eligible products that they buy through that storefront. As of May 2019, Amazon had donated $134,890,393.33 in total among the 4,451 registered organizations.

According to their webpage, every item available for purchase at amazon.com is also available at smile.amazon.com at the same price. You will see eligible products marked “Eligible for AmazonSmile donation” on their product detail pages. If you have trouble deciding on a charity to support, Amazon also regularly highlights five organizations as ‘Spotlight Charities’ that you will see before entering your search terms to find your charity.

Once you make your selection, you will see the name of your charity appear right under the search bar. Apart from that and the search bar, it looks just like the regular Amazon page. It’s a good pitch: buy stuff on Amazon (you were going to anyway) and Amazon donates.

III. What is Amazon giving?

I mentioned a figure earlier, $134,890,393. That’s the amount Amazon has given away through AmazonSmile from when it was launched in October 2013 through May of 2019. Like most numbers that you hear in the same breath as Amazon, it is big. $134 million is more money than most of us will see in our entire lives. It is more than most charitable organizations will spend over the course of decades. It is a transformational amount of money to almost anyone.

But I’m glossing over the obvious. No organization will ever seen that figure on a check from Amazon. It was distributed among the 4,451 registered organizations in the intervening six years. To do a little math, that’s a mean contribution of $30,305.64 per organization over the lifetime of the program, or $5,348 per organization per year, on average. Still, not bad. Who wouldn’t welcome an extra $5k in revenue every year?

But I’m glossing over the even more obvious: these contributions are of course not evenly distributed. 0.5% is $5 of every $1000 in purchases, meaning your AmazonSmile supporters would have to purchase $1,069,000 in eligible products from smile.amazon.com in a given year in order to reach that mean donation of $5,348. A difficult feat for all but the largest networks of supporters.

And indeed, taking a peek at the revenue figures for the organizations highlighted on the AmazonSmile page, all of them have revenues numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The distribution information for AmazonSmile funds is not public information, but it is likely that only the largest registered organizations can command the audience size necessary to build up a meaningfully sized charitable contribution out of these millions of dollars in purchases.

But I’ve glossed over the incredibly obvious.

Amazon launched AmazonSmile on October 30, 2013. During that fiscal quarter of 2013, from October 1 through December 31, Amazon reported a revenue of $25.59 billion ($25,590,000,000). For perspective, that’s 189.7 times what AmazonSmile has given away in the lifetime of that program. Between the launch of AmazonSmile and Q1 of 2019, Amazon has earned $828 billion. That’s 6,144 times what AmazonSmile has donated.

While $134 million is a lot to us, AmazonSmile shoppers (I promise this is the last bit of math) had to spend $27 billion to secure even that. To a company the size of Amazon, $134 million is a pittance.

IV. What are we giving Amazon?

What does it matter, though, how big or small the figure is? It’s funding. Funding that you didn’t have before. Registering takes very little time, and if you mention your AmazonSmile page on social media or at the end of a newsletter, well, how much did that really cost you? What are we providing to Amazon in exchange for this monetary support?

Yes, you have already guessed: Marketing. You’re right. We provide scads of free marketing for Amazon every year. Especially this time of year, during prime* shopping season. Because you have to remind people to go to smile.amazon.com instead of simply amazon.com, it behooves us to point our audience in that direction and ask them to select us before they start their holiday shopping. Unless you are fortunate enough (or, let’s face it, sizable enough) to make the rotating list of ‘spotlight charities,’ you have to take some initiative if you want those contributions to head your way. All those little impressions add up.

Which is why I don’t want to undersell the importance or value of this flood of free marketing when I say I don’t think that’s the most valuable thing we are giving to Amazon in exchange for AmazonSmile. It all does add up. Every mention of their name, every smile logo attached to a post, every donor that we tell to go to Smile.Amazon.com, it all contributes to the pseudo-monopoly that Amazon enjoys over online retailing. By their sheer size, they have built a system where we are incentivized to help make them even bigger. But that’s not the most valuable thing we provide. It’s a side benefit.

The reason that earned media is so valuable is right there on the tin: you had to earn it. A glowing news story about your organization will hit donor’s ears with more volume because it didn’t come from your in-house copywriters, it came from an independent source with a certain amount of journalistic credibility. That’s what we give Amazon when we use our platform to promote their service. We give them our credibility.

We all have a certain amount of hard-won trust in the hearts of our audience and our supporters. We need to, to do our jobs. Why would you give your money to an organization you do not trust? We’re talking about a key part of the relationship between donors and the charitable sector. We draw on that trust, on our own credibility, every time we make a call to action. Even when that call is something as small as asking them to visit a certain website.

But every funder asks to be a part of that relationship in some way, right? Part of stewardship of any major public gift or foundation grant is using your platform to create positive impressions of the funder using your platform. If we’re being honest, that’s why a lot of corporations have foundations in the first place.

We do it, happily, because we want to reward giving behavior and create positive relationships with funders. So let’s disregard the terrible value proposition of AmazonSmile for a moment, and even put aside the credibility we lend them whenever we promote the service. Credibility isn’t even the most valuable thing we give Amazon. It’s a side benefit.

I opened this piece with a short anecdote about one of the Amazon employee strikes because I wanted to draw specific attention to the human cost of Amazon’s business practices. That is the point of this piece. Because it is the point of this piece, while you read this you will be thinking about Amazon in that context. For a few minutes or longer, it will be the most recent thing you’ve read about Amazon. Until you see something else about them in the news, or on Twitter. Or until you see something on your newsfeed about AmazonSmile.

There is only so much space in the digital attention economy, and time and space taken up by AmazonSmile literally cannot be taken up by anything else. The more attention space is filled with mention of your low-impact charitable program, the greater size that space is in comparison to the space taken up by, say, Amazon workers demanding to be treated like human beings. Like changing the concentration of a solution, the simple calls to action that we fill the digital space with around the holidays meaningfully changes the public perception of Amazon as a company. If the story is Amazon giving, the story isn’t Amazon doing harm.

The most valuable thing that we provide Amazon in exchange for AmazonSmile is a cover.

Sure, promoting AmazonSmile creates a ton of free marketing for Amazon and sure, pointing our audiences to their storefront siphons off some of our hard-earned credibility, but the true value of the program to Amazon is wearing our sector like a thin shawl to cover the less-flattering features of their brutal exploitation of human lives.

V. And what does it cost us?

I want us all to really take the time to ask what being involved with Amazon costs us. As much as I value credibility, I think that will be one of the easier things to repair compared to the damage Amazon has done to our moral character and to our constituents.

How many of us work for missions that address the needs of people who are living in poverty? That are fighting for racial, gender, reproductive, and economic justice? That are advocating for the rights of people with disabilities? That are protecting and supporting our immigrant communities? Is Amazon really our partner in these missions?

Among other things, Amazon has fired women for becoming pregnant, collaborated with ICE to round up undocumented immigrants, and maintained work schedules so physically strenuous that they burn through able-bodied young men within months. Their work demands are so relentless that the Somali muslim workers of their Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center could not take a few minutes to themselves each day to pray.

That’s before we even start to consider the systemic costs of the low-wage part-time physically demanding jobs that Amazon needs to maintain its low prices. Underpaid people rely on other things to get by: second or third jobs, families, government social programs. Charities. The poverty that Amazon needs to prop up its distribution machine is the same poverty that makes so many organizations in our field necessary in the first place.

Amazon off-loads the social cost of the trauma they inflict on their workforce onto our sector. They are working against our missions, and paying out peanuts to put that leering orange smile onto websites, emails, and newsletters stamped with our letterheads. Amazon uses AmazonSmile to buy our complicity in their abuse of our constituents, and they buy it remarkably cheap.


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