What is wrong with Smile Amazon?

A while back, Amazon.com introduced a new portion of its website. Amazon Smile allows a user to shop for and buy what they need, with point five percent of the profits going to a charity of their choice. This may be a part of a larger effort on the part of Amazon to reform its “culture of charity”, or rather the culture that never really existed in the first place.

Earlier this year, Amazon was cited in the Seattle Times as being the only big hometown business that is “a minor player in local charitable giving. Some nonprofit officials say it can be difficult to find someone at Amazon to even talk with them. Other business leaders say they’re hard-pressed to name examples of Amazon playing a significant role on broader public issues.” The Seattle Times went on to further note that Amazon tends to still consider itself the “start up in the garage”. While Microsoft matches employee’s donations and time to their favorite cause and Boeing “sponsors an annual “Global Day of Service” and covers the administrative costs of community funds owned and managed by its employees”, Amazon is hard pressed to do any of that, let alone donate or sponsor hometown events.

The article also noted that even employees in the company have fallen into a somewhat dysfunctional culture of change, where even though they wanted to change the way that Amazon looks at philanthropy they were told not to bother. When asked by the Seattle Times what Amazon brings to the table, Jeff Bezos, the company founder, noted that “Our core business activities are probably the most important thing we do to contribute, as well as our employment in the area.” He also doubted “that philanthropy was the best way to solve the world’s social problems.”

In contrast, Amazon is a loner out on the field of big businesses and corporations donating to charity/giving money to solve problems. Microsoft and Boeing are both examples of how a culture of caring for their employees and what they do can turn to supporting the same causes. Other companies have similarly stepped up to “support” certain organizations through their missions. Take for example Starbucks and its efforts towards fair trade coffee, or chocolate companies that take the effort to monitor the whole “bean to bar” process, all the while making sure that the quality of their product is represented by how workers and the environment may be treated. Toms makes shoes that they donate to “the people who need it”, Project Red was started to help the fight against AIDS by donating a percentage of their profits to the cause, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is something that is catching on in a lot of places.

That said, I don’t fault Jeff Bezos on his doubts that just philanthropy can help solve the world’s problems. The point is, it doesn’t. Some philanthropists donate because it improves their own image or their company’s interest, not pausing long enough to think about the impact they are having or the realities that guide the poverty gap/global north south divide. Even for philanthropists that do donate both time and money to a cause, they often are only contributing to a problem that has come up or to this view that money solves everything, that all problems are inherently money based. Most of the time, it can’t solve the social problems of another society, it can’t solve alone the fact that women aren’t empowered/ don’t have the chance to do what they want to do, it can’t stop the violence. When money is often thrown at a problem, it often doesn’t involve the local community’s needs or opinions.

It takes philanthropy, in conjunction with community based thinking/action and a sustained long term effort on the part of everyone involved (donors, activists, government, NGOs, workers, etc), to start to fix a problem. Philanthropy alone will only help with organizational costs or transaction costs, it divides classes, it doesn’t help with the mindset that people must have to enact real change. Just cultivating this sense of CSR will not help, just donating money to organizations will not help, but some would argue that it is a step forward towards that long term effort. A step that Amazon seems unwilling, here, to take.

You might ask if it even matters that corporations and businesses contribute a portion of their profits towards finding a solution/”helping” the world? Even though I believe that it does lull businesses and people into a sense that they’re doing enough to find solutions, I would also argue every little bit gets us on our way.

Some might argue whether it’s “the most moral or important thing to do with your time, talent and treasure.” Certainly Paul Schervish, as quoted in the Seattle Times, doesn’t. While this might be true, it takes a community/group to make something happen, as we can’t all do one thing alone. It isn’t efficient for the company, but at the same time it’s a way that companies can show how much about they care about the bottom line vs. how much “inefficiency” they willing to contribute that might, might just help in solving something, not delay or harm it.

But let’s get back to Amazon Smile… Here are the three (and there are certainly more reasons than just that), why I believe that Amazon’s approach to philanthropy via Smile Amazon, is ineffective.

1. This is a more mundane reason, but Amazon Smile is on a separate site. In order to get to Amazon Smile, you have to know the link to it first, and Amazon doesn’t help with that. If you looked it up, sure, you might find it… But then you would need to not only bookmark it, but remember to keep shopping through it every time you do shop. Even more, Amazon doesn’t provide a link or page that redirects you on their main site. they don’t provide any other indication that Amazon Smile even exists to the average buyer.

2. Charitable organizations need to register via Amazon Smile to even be considered as participating and you can only give back buying “Amazon Smile Eligible” items. This may have something to do with setting up the Electronic Fund Transfer/organization account on  Amazon Smile, but I believe it’s just another bump in the road for smaller charitable organizations to go through, just to get .5 percent of every purchase. Is .5 percent real money, or is it just a cop out?

3. At last look, I don’t believe that Amazon goes nearly far enough to support its employees through matching donations to charity that reflect their employees time and effort and raising more awareness on what they can do.There are more reasons why Amazon Smile doesn’t go nearly as far as other companies or corporations. Compared to its peers in the business world, it doesn’t go far enough. Compared to individuals, foundations, and NGOs working in the field (both settled NGOs and the more pioneering, radical NGOs), it is in the rear of this army… But I would still encourage people to check out the site, and if possible shop through it. Of course, it wouldn’t be as effective as directly supporting a charity through the goods they sell (on Amazon or not), or as effective as donating time and effort to the cause… But you have to start somewhere.

In addition, we must also keep the pressure up on Amazon to reevaluate its thinking and corporate culture to start considering: if not philanthropy, then what else can we do that may compromise our bottom line, but also make a difference? Because the only way that corporations and businesses can show that they care and that they stand out nowadays, is ostensibly to do something inefficient/something that hits their own bottom line.

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