What is wrong with Amazon Smile?

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Originally published on ackwok.wordpress.com


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