When it was announced before Christmas that all non-essential shops in London and the south-east of England were to be closed immediately, my husband and I – disorganised fools that we are – immediately thought of Amazon, the easiest and most obvious solution for buying last-minute presents. Amazon doesn’t publicly release its day-by-day profits, but its owner Jeff Bezos is among those who have done very well by the crisis, having seen his personal fortune rise by 65 per cent since March. He offers a service that is quick, convenient and inexpensive, and the stuck-at-home public have rewarded him handsomely for it.
Most of us are aware by now of Amazon’s dubious ethical record. In 2016, as part of research for his book Hired, James Bloodworth took a job at an Amazon warehouse in Staffordshire and discovered a “workplace environment in which decency, respect and dignity were absent”, with workers urinating into bottles for fear of being disciplined for taking a toilet break.
But then, we tell ourselves as we click the “buy now” button, Amazon is hardly unusual among tech giants. There is an Apple factory in Zhengzhou, China, that engineers have dubbed “Mordor” because of the high rate of suicide among its workers, while Apple, Nike and Coca-Cola are some of the companies reported to be currently lobbying the US Congress to weaken some provisions in a bill that would ban imported goods made with forced Uighur labour. It is bitterly hypocritical of Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, to issue a sanctimonious statement in support of Black Lives Matter, if at the same time his corporation is lobbying to weaken a bill that seeks to protect labourers – slaves, really – who are, among much else, being tasked with picking cotton, feeding a Chinese industry that now accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s cotton market.
Apple, for its part, denies it has lobbied to weaken the bill, saying that it “supports efforts to strengthen US law and believes the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act should become law”, and is committed to “ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with dignity and respect”.
But then here am I, hypocritical to the bone, condemning these misdeeds while typing on an Apple device. And I have to confess that I did, in the end, buy several Christmas presents from Amazon, as well as buying a couple from the local independent shop. I also sometimes put my money towards (fair trade!) biscuits containing palm oil, or run an errand in my (hybrid!) car when I should really cycle. I was vegan for a few years, and I didn’t give it up for any reason to do with health or money, but rather because I didn’t like being the awkward person who demands a special meal be made for her, and because I missed drinking breakfast tea and couldn’t get used to drinking it black. In other words, all of these moral blunders are a consequence of selfishness and laziness, not malice. But the end result is just the same.
I don’t like the phrase “on the right side of history”, since it arrogantly assumes history has a moral direction. Hilary Mantel expressed this sentiment in her 2017 Reith Lecture:
“Each century speaks of the grotesque cruelties of the one that went before – as if cruelty were alien to the present, and we couldn’t own or recognise it. It seems we are doomed to be hypocrites – repulsed by the cruelties of bear-baiting, while polishing off our factory-farmed dinner.”
We can never predict who will turn out to have been “on the right side of history”, since such people are usually not recognised in their own time. I often think, for instance, of Benjamin Lay, an American abolitionist born in 1682, who once walked into his local Quaker meeting house, thrust a sword through the middle of a Bible containing a bladder of pokeberry juice, and spattered the congregants with what appeared to be blood, thundering his wrath against slave-owning Quakers. Later in life, Lay retreated from the world and lived alone in a cave outside Philadelphia, where he spun his own clothes and refused to eat meat. His peers regarded him as an eccentric, which, of course, he was. He also happened to be right.
If there is a Benjamin Lay alive in 2021, it may perhaps be Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of Peta, who was interviewed for this magazine in 2019. Unlike most of us, Newkirk’s moral crusade is not constrained by selfishness or laziness. She will not even allow herself to be constrained by death: her will stipulates that when she dies she wants her flesh to be used for a human barbecue, her skin turned into purses, and an eye sent to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “as a reminder that Peta will continue to be watching”. Meanwhile, I’m too fussy to drink my tea without milk.
Newkirks and Lays are rare indeed. Most of us continue to put our money towards corporate evil, not because we condone it, but because it’s the easy thing to do. And yet the relationship between corporations and consumers is, of course, symbiotic. Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook are tasked with promoting the interests of their shareholders, and they are shrewd enough to realise that paying lip service to a fashionable cause, while ignoring an unfashionable one, is usually the best route to profit-making.
In the end, responsibility must lie as much with us as it does with them. But when you stand in a supermarket deciding whether or not to buy a pint of milk, or you browse Amazon for last-minute presents, or you come across a T-shirt that may or may not have been made with slave-grown cotton, you don’t feel like you’re making the most morally consequential decision you will make that day. You feel like you’re buying something that is cheap and pleasurable and essential to daily life. So you go ahead and put it in your trolley, and the gears of the machine keep grinding.