Amazon has been revealed as producer of enormous amounts of waste each week, as it throws away thousands of unsold products. Such wastefulness is a by-product of the profit-driven capitalist system and the anarchy of the market.
An ITV investigation into the Amazon Dunfermline facility exposed up to 200,000 items a week being marked as waste there, including expensive brand-new electronics and many returned items in like-new condition. Former employees at the Amazon warehouse testified to having a target quota for ‘wasted’ items of 130,000 a week. Leaked documents also revealed that in one week in April, 124,000 items were destroyed while only 28,000 were donated to charities.
The revelations are reminiscent of the 2018 Burberry scandal, in which is was revealed that the luxury brand was buying back its own stock and destroying it. £26.8m worth of Burberry products were burned for the sake of protecting the brand’s exclusivity and luxury price tag.
The ex-Amazon workers in this case were dismayed at the sheer irrationality of throwing valuable goods like TVs and iPads into a skip, and especially outraged to see essential medical PPE such as facemasks simply binned. A similar situation has been uncovered in French and German Amazon sites too.
Government voices were not so moved by this scandal. Tory Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was incredulous, saying it would be “disappointing if true”, while Boris Johnson simply oozed sentiments about “an indictment of consumerist society”.
This is not an indictment of “consumerism” as the PM says, or a “disposal culture” (Greenpeace) or a “throwaway culture” (DEFRA), but the capitalist system itself.
The economics at play are no secret: it would simply cost Amazon more to store these items until they are sold, than the company would make from selling them. It is more economically prudent to send excess stock to landfill or recycling centres – the environmental cost does not enter the calculation.
Last year the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee named Amazon among other online retailers that do not ‘do enough’ to take responsibility for their waste. GMB also commented on the story, calling Amazon a “greedy, profit-driven company that would always put profits before the planet”.
The excess unsold stock that finds itself piling up in Dunfermline, or the 24 other fulfilment centres Amazon holds across the UK, or the thousands across the world, is there as a result of the blind economic laws of the market. This ‘invisible hand’ – we are told – connects every buyer with a seller and ensures that capitalism is the most economically efficient system possible, with the optimal distribution of society’s resources!
The truth is quite at variance with this free-market dogma. Capitalism only ensures that economic resources – labour, raw materials etc – are concentrated in the hands of those who can turn a profit, regardless of real social needs or environmental cost. This wealthy minority directs the daily economic activity of billions of workers, and owns all the factories, warehouses, etc as their private property.
The capitalists demand production at whatever scale can realise the greatest profit – the capitalist system is thus marked by an “immense accumulation of commodities” as Marx wrote in the first lines of Capital. Marx also discovered, however, that this enormous volume of commodity production tends towards over-production: more is produced than can be profitably sold on the market. The tonnes of unsold stock appearing in Amazon warehouses are one consequence of this.
The other side to this scandal of waste is the damage to the environment. Amazon UK CEO John Boumphrey denies suggestions that his company is wasteful, and asserts that only a minority of wasted goods go to landfills. The rest is sent for recycling he says – but this is not the end of the story.
Second only to the US, the UK is the leading country in the world for things such as e-waste and plastic waste. This often involves unsold or old electronics, which may only be recycled by profit-making firms harvesting the components or valuable metals from the circuitry.
Much of this waste just ends up incinerated or in landfill overseas, contributing to environmental and humanitarian disasters like the Agbobloshie dump in Ghana. New international rules on waste are set to be introduced in 2021, in an effort to fight the export of polluting waste to poor countries. In making the exports to countries like Turkey or Malaysia more costly, it will just lead to more pollution in the US and Europe where the waste is still produced. Moreover, much of this waste export market is already officially illegal, but goes on unabated.
Attempts to patch up the ‘market failures’ of capitalism will always fail when it is the system at fault. Capitalism means enormous waste and inefficiency, with even greater human and environmental costs. To live in a sustainable, rational economy the anarchy of the market has to be ended, with the abolition of private property and the creation of a socialist, planned economy.