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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.

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 human price of those low shipping costs.

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