Moral outrage at Amazon is cancelled with a click

Amazon worker wraps someone else’s Christmas present. Chris Radburn/PA Wire

If there’s any time of year that retail companies fear bad press it’s in the run-up to Christmas, so undercover footage revealing gruelling work conditions which was broadcast last week and the ongoing tax-related naming and shaming is unlikely to be welcome news at Amazon high command.

To cap it all, Amazon has been forced to endure sensational headlines about its court battle with ethical cosmetics company Lush over “bullying” business practices.

With all of this negative PR, it’s a hard-push to find members of the public who’ll defend the company – as Twitter trends show the fury-filled sentiments that thousands share (and retweet).

It might be imagined that Amazon’s bid to do decent business in the UK over this festive period could be hampered – and yet the evidence suggests that this is anything but a likely outcome. Highly powerful and emotive information often fails to lead to the kind of behavioural changes that might be expected. Why? The answer to that was the central focus of research conducted by the Glasgow University Media Group in 2012: does anything we hear, see or read actually make a difference?

The simple answer is: yes, it does – but growing knowledge and attitudinal sympathies don’t always translate into action for a whole range of reasons.

Shocking culture

The Panorama exposé of Amazon’s working conditions is genuinely shocking – though largely to those who still expect holidays and sick pay. And, shocked or otherwise, some of this group might even agree with the words of the London Mayor that “greed is good”, the quest to eradicate inequality is “futile” and actually some people having a rotten old time is a “valuable spur to economic activity”.

In a media and political culture in which support for disabled people is increasingly conceived of as “something for nothing”, such sentiments are not as extreme as they might sound.

Far less shocked are those who have worked in the modern retail environment. They have adapted over time to the structural transformation taking place within it – and they’re either too exhausted or too scared of losing their own jobs to bite the hand that feeds.

The principle behind the Lush court action is equally important – that we’ve handed so much power over to a few companies that they actually direct our thinking now. A bit like Google algorithms select and privilege information every day with reduced input from us. But, as Evgeny Morzov frequently points out, technology companies and their agendas just don’t get scrutinised in the way the banking or energy industries do. It’s technology, so it must be progressive. Of the minority who are cynical, the battle for privacy is a ship that has long since sailed.

Self before sacrifice

There will be individuals greatly affected by what they hear and read about Amazon, but there are barriers to turning attitude into action – cost and convenience mainly. Working parents on low incomes find Amazon appealing on a number of levels; is a reduced Christmas for their own family the kind of sacrifice they’d make? Do people put ethics before their own children? Think Labour politicians and their choice of school.

Our research did, however, find a small number of people who changed their behaviour in response to new information (about the potential effects of climate change in this case). It happened when information tapped into existing sympathies often alongside unmet commitments – and money and life did not prohibit carrying these out. With Amazon, perhaps it’s those who found the tax issue morally indefensible, with the Panorama documentary the final push factor.

The numbers who will vote with their feet are difficult to predict. Only time will tell the impact on Amazon’s profits. One thing worth remembering is that the company is part of a much broader cultural shift to conducting much of our daily lives online – and perhaps that makes it easier to express moral outrage but separate that from how we actually behave.

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