While I have had moments in my life where I would have avoided Amazon in the first place, this moment is not one of them. But I'm working on it.
Even with snow-stopping mittens, sometimes you just need to get pulled home on a sled.
I promised to tell you more about giving up Amazon for Lent. I had been talking with some Spanish-speaking friends on a Zoom call back around the time of Ash Wednesday. These friends are living in Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Pennsylvania, here in Valpo, and Minnesota. We were talking about what our Lenten practice was going to be this year. I wasn't sure yet, but I was contemplating giving up buying things on Amazon.
Well, what I really said was that I wanted to give up solving my problems by buying things. My Costa Rican husband has noticed (and often comments) about how we white middle-class people in the US have a "gadget" for every problem - real or imagined - under the sun. I told my friends that I wanted to try to solve my issues with creative homemade solutions, rather than by buying things. It was an embarrassing confession to make to them, as those friends living in Latin America shared some of their very creative solutions for similar issues, these friends who do not share my current problem of "too much disposable income."
"Creative homemade solutions" wasn't a very SMART goal (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based), as I have been taught to create for myself in the health realm. But a few days later I realized that just giving up Amazon, my go-to-problem-solving-gadget solution, would fit the bill in this case: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based.
On the day I talked with my friends, I had purchased mittens on Amazon that promised to stay on my kids' arms and keep the snow out from under their sleeves. This was very important to me, as we were doing our best to get in some outside time during the pandemic winter. Our best laid outdoor plans were continually foiled by disobedient and ineffectual mittens. After about the 10th time that your 2-year is sitting on a snow bank screaming that he has snow in his sleeves, while you are trying to shovel and whistle a happy tune (after it has taken you about an hour to get them outside in the first place), I'm guessing you might also be interested in "snow-stopping mittens."
So you see, while I have had moments in my life when I might have clearly and decisively avoided Amazon in the first place, this particular moment, in which I am a mother to two small children, has turned me into a faithful Amazon customer (I am sort of embarrassed to admit). I mean, mittens that will cause us to actually enjoy our time outside, rather than spending half of it whining about snow on the wrists...? Mittens that arrive to my doorstep in two days that I didn't have go out hunting for...? It seems too good to be true.
While many of us have come to rely on home-delivery during the pandemic, the whole phenomenon was actually less revolutionary to me in 2020 than it was when we moved to the US from Costa Rica with a 7-month-old baby. There, people order items from Amazon and have them delivered by a courier service to a PO Box in Miami, which then brings the items to an office location in Costa Rica. Buses and billboards throughout the country announce this service by exclaiming: “Live the experience of buying online!” as if the whole point of buying items from Amazon is to feel a rush like in white-water rafting or visiting Europe.
Some examples of what I'm talking about - standing in line for your Amazon package, and being invited to "live the experience of buying online."
I didn’t want to spend the kind of time or money required for this service (the traffic jams to get to these locations are no joke, there is no Amazon Prime free shipping to Costa Rica, and the import taxes meant that items are no cheaper purchased online than they would be any other way). But the organization where I worked in Costa Rica did send and receive checks through this courier service, so I would periodically go stand in line at their office and watch people receive their packages. The attendant would pull out the box cutter and open the tape, and the person would make sure the contents met their expectations before yielding to the next person in line.
Overall, kind of the opposite of the “experience of buying online” that people in the US have. (I believe that in the 4 years that I have lived in the US there are now more delivery options to your front door in Costa Rica.)
You can imagine my surprise and delight - after living for 9 years in Costa Rica (when the Amazon boom really happened), returning to the US with a small child, living on the 3rd floor of an apartment complex, soon with another baby on the way - having items delivered to me was something of a miracle for my sleep-deprived self (yes, it’s been years of sleep deprivation, see last week's post). You can probably imagine it in part because you have experienced that semi-miracle yourself.
Except that it’s not a miracle, is it? We’ve recently learned as workers in Alabama attempted to form a union that the days or weeks that are shaved off of the time it takes to get our items delivered actually come at the expense of the break-time owed to workers in Amazon’s warehouses, or of taxpayer money in towns where Amazon distribution centers are popping up all over the country (Amazon gets extreme tax incentives to set up in areas where employment is needed, much as banana companies have always done in Central America).
The future Amazon warehouse in Valparaiso, Indiana
Amazon thrives on the same professed benefits the banana plantations promise to deliver: desperately needed jobs for backwater regions, and cheap consumer goods to everyone else. The factory-style, time-driven production and delivery of the goods to demanding consumers can be a boon to an area’s economy, sure. And then when the banana company eventually and inevitably pulls out due to any number of factors (environmental, political, economic, etc), the social upheaval, conflict, and economic desolation that results is sobering. We can look at our former steel cities (like Gary, IN, and Detroit, MI, in my current proverbial backyard) to see other examples of the same thing.
It’s enough to feel quite discouraged. The problem seems so big, but maybe it’s not as bad as it seems, actually? Except that the precedents are there, and they aren’t very pretty.
I've decided that I'm going to try to take baby steps to live more like how I wish the world could be, which would include Amazon workers getting bathroom breaks, billionaires being held accountable for their business practices, and regular people like me being a little more mindful about where my stuff comes from and what is a "want" versus a "need." So, I'm going to keep working on it.
Here are a few things that I learned during my Amazon fast:
You can still find things you might want or need on Amazon, but then go straight to the seller's website and buy it there. I found a book on Amazon that I wanted/needed, and bought it from a local bookstore's website, and got the great satisfaction of contributing "$4.80" to the local bookstore (they quantified it for me right on the site).
It turns out I actually don't need anything I might purchase on Amazon in 2 days. Shocker, I know. When buying online from a family-owned store, the shipping takes a lot longer. But I do other things while I wait, and the world does not end.
There have been about 2 items that we haven't been able to find anywhere else (related to home brewing), so we did get them from Amazon (after Easter). So, perhaps a reasonable plan going forward will be to mostly abstain from Amazon.
I forgot to turn off an auto-ship, so I got an Amazon package during Lent. It was something I hadn't even run out of yet, and honestly I'm not even sure why I scheduled an auto-ship, anyway. It was kind of an experiment, and now I feel that I fell into a trap where Amazon was sort of pick-pocketing me with my permission.
So, I think I'm going to stick with it, actually, my Amazon fast. Lent is now over (Happy Easter!), but I’m not jumping back on the bandwagon just yet. I'm going to try life without Amazon for a while. I'm sure Jeff Bezos will be fine.
PS: Get this. On our last trip to Costa Rica over the holidays, we learned that Amazon now brings its returned items (like that dinosaur costume that didn’t fit my 90th percentile 18-month old) to pop-up stores throughout Costa Rica. On Mondays all items in the store are priced at around $15, and each day the price goes down until Saturday when everything is around $1. So the idea is that you can get expensive, brand-named items (with the only caveat being that they have been returned by someone in the US, potentially for no reason or maybe due to defect – you’re running that risk) for $15, and other perfectly good items that you may not have a use for now, but might in the future (like the bridal bouquet made of silk flowers my sister-in-law found) for only $1.
Here is a video of one of these “outlets,” as they are called, raffling off two prizes. You can see in the background how all of the returned Amazon items are still in their original packaging. Can you make out your returned package?