3 Surprising Shopping Habits That Are Bad for the World

While most progressives are aware of Wal-Mart's labor problems, they may not know about the way workers at an Amazon shipping facility are treated.

Photo Credit: Juan Camilo Bernal /

Every good progressive knows that making ethical shopping decisions is a tricky business. Many dubious shopping practices are well-known: Wal-Mart and other big box stores that famously mistreat their workers, and chain bookstores, which are putting the nation's independent booksellers out of business, for instance.

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But other practices are murkier. While most progressives are aware of Wal-Mart's labor problems, they may not know about the way workers at, say, an Amazon shipping facility are treated. And they may have no idea that buying a Groupon can be a terrible deal for some small businesses -- the very businesses they want to support.

Below you'll find several examples of shopping habits you may not know were tied to shady labor practices and other problems.

1. Buying from online retailers that treat their warehouse workers like dirt.

Most of us don't think twice about comparison shopping online to find the best deal on, well, just about everything. Shoes, books, electronics, toiletries, even food -- if there's free shipping, or a 30-percent-off code, who would hesitate to hit that "add to cart" button? Indeed, the data shows that online retail sales are going up and up, with a 15 percent increase in sales this past holiday season. Cyber Monday, the online equivalent of the old Black Friday door-busters, has become especially popular, with year-over-year sales increasing by 23 percent last year.

However, as Mother Jones' Mac McClelland wrote after going undercover at an online shipping facility recently, "every time a 'Place Order' button rings, a poor person takes four Advil and gets told they suck at their job." McClelland's undercover stint as a "picker" (someone who runs -- often literally -- around a massive warehouse looking for items to ship) taught her that such facilities are a minefield of terrible labor practices. Workers are routinely demoralized, saddled with unrealistic goals, forced to work under conditions that are extremely taxing on the body, and often given no job security whatsoever.

One of the biggest problems McClelland found is online retailers' over-reliance on temporary workers, who receive low pay, few-to-no benefits, unstable work schedules, and unsure future work prospects. She reports:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than 15 percent of pickers, packers, movers, and unloaders are temps. They make $3 less an hour on average than permanent workers. And they can be "temporary" for years. There are so many temps in this warehouse that the staffing agency has its own office here. Industry consultants describe the temp-staffing business as "very, very busy." "On fire." Maximizing profits means making sure no employee has a slow day, means having only as many employees as are necessary to get the job done, the number of which can be determined and ordered from a huge pool of on-demand labor literally by the day. Often, temp workers have to call in before shifts to see if they'll get work. Sometimes, they're paid piece rate, according to the number of units they fill or unload or move. Always, they can be let go in an instant, and replaced just as quickly.

As she notes, "that is how you slash prices and deliver products superfast and offer free shipping and still post profits in the millions or billions."

McClelland's experience doesn't appear to be an anomaly. Similar conditions have been reported at warehouses for Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, as well as for much smaller businesses, like New York City's grocery delivery service FreshDirect. In each of these instances, companies exploit workers to meet consumer demand for free or low-cost shipping -- a demand that might not exist if shoppers knew the humanprice of those low shipping costs.

2. Buying from Groupon and other group deal Web sites can be a bad deal for small businesses.

The group deal fad may be on the wane, but at its peak many of us bought coupons for everything from $5 off a dozen cupcakes, 20 percent off at a local restaurant, or a discounted massage. Group deal sites like Groupon, Living Social and Scoutmob, to name a few, still exist, and at least in theory, they're still a brilliant idea: a business (often a small, local one) signs up to offer a specific discount, and on a certain day hoards of people will buy said discount, giving customers a good deal and businesses an influx of business.

Unfortunately, the reality of these deal sites is often not so win-win. Some business owners have spoken out about their bad experiences. Jessie Burke, the owner of Portland's Posies Cafe, wrote last summer in a much circulated blog post that signing up with Groupon was "the single worst decision I have ever made as a business owner thus far." TechCrunch broke down why Burke's experience was not unusual:

  • The customers she attracted weren't likely to be regulars. One customer tried to use three Groupons at once. "What are you going to get for $39? Do you want the whole shop? And they were really offended." "Most people took a trek here. This is definitely a neighborhood shop. People don't come here from other parts of town just to get coffee." Some were abusive to staff and didn't tip.
  • Most customers didn't spend much more than the deal value. Groupon told her that something like 98% spent more than the value of the Groupon. "You think maybe like $5 above the value, not like 10 cents." It's in Groupon's interests to make the deal value as high as possible because they get a cut of that. They don't get a cut of anything extra that someone spends at the business.
  • There was minimal training on what to expect. Groupon sent her a link to a video. There was no explanation of how to handle things like expired coupons. "The onus of responsibility shouldn't be entirely on this little business that doesn't know the laws in the first place."
  • Burke didn't do anything to convert Groupon customers into regulars, like asking them to follow her on Twitter or Facebook.
  • She would like to see more transparency. "I think it's helpful for people to know that you're not actually giving someone $6, you're giving someone $3 in our case."
  • Her Yelp ratings sank after the Groupon customers complained about the business.

Points like these are surely part of the reason the deals on group deal sites have become less appealing in recent months; business owners have heard too many horror stories like Jessie Burke's. And that might be for the best, because for every Groupon success story, there seems to be a few businesses that got (unintentionally) screwed over by the people who bought their "deal."

3. "Fast fashion" stores rip off artists and exploit factory workers.

Awareness is growing about the unethical tendencies of companies that shill "fast fashion" -- H&M, Zara, Forever 21 and the like -- but it hasn't grown enough. There is not the same stigma among progressives for going into an H&M as there is for going into a Wal-Mart, and yet shopping at the former isn't a whole lot more ethical than shopping at the latter. In fact, many people still think of fast fashion stores as liberating, because they democratize fashion, bringing unattainable runway designs to the masses. Fashion for the people!

The reality is that these stores achieve "fashion democracy" by exploiting workers (the vast majority of their clothes are still made in overseas sweatshops) and ripping off the work of other designers. (Good design is expensive, because it takes a lot of work!)

These businesses are also famously wasteful, having been known to destroy perfectly good clothes that could have been worn by someone in need. And they've created the false impression among shoppers that everyone should be able to buy as much clothing as they want -- at $15 a dress, why not? So shoppers buy far more clothing than they actually need, and then toss it after it falls apart or becomes unfashionable, often after a few wears. Then, it either ends up in a landfill, or if the clothes are still wearable and can be donated, it goes to a thrift store, which is probably overrun with clothing donations. As Tabea Kay reported for GOOD recently:

[W]hen we drop off our blue Ikea bags filled with used clothing, we believe that the evidence of our disposable income is being put to good use. From there, only 15 to 20 percent of worthy waste is resold in thrift shops domestically, as the U.S. market simply doesn't house the demand to absorb more secondhand clothing. The remaining T-shirts, skirts and jeans follow one of three paths: 30 percent of it is cut and repurposed for industrial wiping rags; roughly 25 percent is recycled into fiber for reuse as stuffing and insulation; and the remaining 45 percent continues life as clothing on a different continent.

It would be easy to meet this information with resignation: Well, where the hell am I supposed to shop? And indeed, it is unrealistic to assume that we can or will all start shopping exclusively at food co-ops and ethical fashion boutiques. Still, we shouldn't despair. Instead, we should use this information to fire us up about supporting workers' rights in every industry and pushing for things like ethical shopping certifications, to borrow an excellent idea from McClelland's warehouse reporting.

As for the daily deal sites, some communities are starting to launch alternatives called cash mobs, which ask participants to flock to a chosen business on a chosen day and pay full price for their goods and services. The bottom line is that we're all going to have to get creative, and stay informed, to make headway toward widely available, ethical shopping choices.

Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to, The L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.