The current Coronavirus-19 pandemic has challenged governments and businesses to make complicated decisions that affect public well-being. While preventing the spread of the disease is the primary concern, companies also face the concomitant economic issues, such as a lack of customers, decreased profits, and difficulties in paying wages to employees. In order to address the emerging problems, businesses and governments are expected to make decisions taking ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) into consideration.
The concept of CSR implies that companies do not function outside of society, so they have to adjust their actions to the expectations of the public (Podnar, 2014). In this regard, one of the large companies, Amazon, failed to follow the principles of CSR and meet the expectations of its customers and employees. The analysis of Amazon’s poor response to the crisis shows that the company’s insufficient actions, which can be categorized as bluewashing, negatively influenced the well-being of its clients and staff.
The Model of Understanding CSR applicable to Amazon
There are several models of understanding CSR, depending on the political and socioeconomic systems of countries, in which they are applied. As a rule, five models are distinguished: the Anglo-Saxon, German, Latin, Nordic-Dutch, and post-socialist models (Podnar, 2014). The Anglo-Saxon model is characteristic of the US companies, and it significantly differs from the rest. In European countries, which apply the German, Latin, or Nordic-Dutch models, the governments and societies have a great influence on forming CSR frameworks (Podnar, 2014). Such models are said to have implicit CSR, which means that social responsibilities are imposed on companies by governmental regulations and laws (Podnar, 2014). Implicit CSR is mandatory, so companies are under the control of various industry associations that oversee how firms meet social requirements (Puaschunder, 2019).
The Anglo-Saxon model, on the other hand, represents explicit CSR. It means that companies take on social responsibilities based on their own interests rather than due to governmental enforcement (Podnar, 2014). It is explained by low governmental regulation, which is characteristic of the US (Puaschunder, 2019). Under such conditions, companies decide for themselves what they should do to enhance their stakeholders’ and society’s well-being.
The Anglo-Saxon model is suitable for understanding the CSR of Amazon. Amazon is an American company based in Seattle and operating on a global scale. Its business is concerned with artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and internet trade. Being based in the US, the company does not experience a heavy burden of government regulations related to social responsibility. However, present-day societies are concerned not only about the quality of goods and services they receive but also about the impact of enterprises on the environment and public well-being (Podnar, 2014). For this reason, Amazon, as well as other companies aiming at economic success, has taken on certain social responsibilities.
Amazon claims that it pays much attention to the protection of human rights and the environment. The company states that, although “it is the duty of governments to protect human rights, Amazon recognizes our responsibility to respect and uphold internationally recognized human rights” (Amazon, n.d., para. 2). This statement evidently confirms that Amazon follows the Anglo-Saxon model of understanding CSR. The company demonstrates that it has voluntarily decided to assume responsibility for protecting human rights, even though it should be the obligation of the government. Amazon aims at providing its employees with a safe and healthy workplace and encouraging diversity and inclusion (Amazon, n.d.).
It also guarantees safety and respectful treatment to all its suppliers and other stakeholders (Amazon, n.d.). Moreover, the company asserts that it strives to reduce its carbon emission and packaging waste (Amazon, n.d.). Thus, Amazon has committed itself to the identified ethical standards to meet public expectations as to the social responsibilities of businesses.
Amazon’s Poor Response to the Crisis
Although the company had made many commitments in terms of social responsibility, when there emerged a strong need for implementing CSR, Amazon failed to do so. The research into Amazon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic revealed at least two areas, in which the company’s CSR actions appeared to be insufficient. They include ensuring fair pricing for customers and providing employees with a safe and healthy workplace.
The newly emerged respiratory disease appeared to be extremely contagious, forcing people to strictly adhere to hand hygiene and cover their faces to avoid being infected. It resulted in the increased demand for hand sanitizers and face masks. When there is a great demand for something, some unprincipled individuals try to profit from it. Some people began to buy large amounts of sanitizers and masks and sell them with high markups.
Amazon, being a large online marketplace, became a suitable platform for profiteers to dispose of their goods. While shops and drugstores ran out of their supplies of the necessary items, such necessities as antibacterial lotions, baby formulas, thermometers, and other important household products were selling at Amazon “with a markup of up to 1,000%” (Walsh, 2020, para. 6). Naturally, those were third-party sellers, and Amazon was not the only e-commerce platform that encountered profiteers, but it does not justify the company.
Amazon’s fault in price gouging consists in a failure to identify and remove overpriced offerings promptly. Increased demand for such commodities as sanitizers and masks was quite expected, so the company could have taken measures to prepare to block profiteers’ advertisements quickly. It also could have set specific limitations as to the amount of the necessities that could be sold by a single seller and the highest price that could be charged for such goods.
The poor response of Amazon to price gouging resulted in negative consequences for the well-being of the public-at-large. First of all, it encouraged profiteers to buy large amounts of the necessary commodities for resale, which created deficiency. Because of this deficiency, these goods became unavailable for people who indeed needed them. For example, Attorney General Bob Ferguson complained that his 91-year-old mother, as well as other older adults, needed to have unlimited access to hand sanitizers, but a bottle containing four ounces could cost $60 (Dolmetsch et al., 2020). Secondly, the lack of essential products caused a panic, which is extremely undesirable in such emergencies as the current pandemic.
Thirdly, Amazon’s inability to promptly respond to overpriced offerings led to the situation when such advertisements were active for long enough for people to buy them (Walsh, 2020). It means that individuals had to unnecessarily pay extra because Amazon and other online marketplaces failed to cope with profiteers.
However, Amazon’s insufficient CSR actions to ensure its employees’ safety can have even more threatening consequences for both its staff and the public-at-large. As a result of the current pandemic, companies have to change the way they operate. The main changes are concerned with employees’ interaction with each other. As a rule, workers are discouraged from gathering in groups and standing too close to each other to avoid the potential spread of the virus.
If the kind of activities performed by a company allows for remote work, businesses switch to such a type of employment; however, this is not the case with Amazon’s warehouse workers. Employees are also encouraged to wear masks and wash their hands as often as possible. Finally, if workers manifest the symptoms of respiratory disease, they should quarantine themselves and get tested for COVID-19. All these measures are designed to prevent the spread of the illness.
Amazon appears to have violated these rules, thus not only endangering its employees’ health but also hindering the preventive measures being taken by other companies and governments. Amazon’s warehouse workers are worried about the insufficient actions taken by the company to ensure their safety. About 1,500 of them signed a petition appealing to the e-commerce giant to make the workplace safer and healthier so that its employees did not contribute to the spread of the disease (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020).
Amazon’s workers say that the employer sends them home only after they start coughing, thus becoming even more contagious (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). Some employees in the company’s Spanish and Italian warehouses have already contracted the coronavirus disease (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). However, these warehouses are not closed; instead, they are only sprinkled with disinfectant.
Amazon claims that it encourages its employees to adhere to hand hygiene. It has placed signs in the workplace, calling on workers to wash their hands, and it gives the personnel the time to use the restroom (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). Yet, workers complain that it is challenging to follow these hygiene rules because of the high workload (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). Since many people are put into quarantine, they have begun to use e-commerce and delivery services more frequently, which makes Amazon’s warehouse employees work harder (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). For this reason, even though workers are allowed to visit restrooms as often as they need, they cannot afford it because of time pressure.
Another flaw in Amazon’s CSR actions is insufficient measures to secure its employees for the period of the quarantine financially. Although workers are free to leave their work if they feel sick or have to take care of their children, they are not paid for the period of their absence (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). Therefore, in their petition, workers ask Amazon to provide them with paid sick leave, not only if they are proved to have been infected with the coronavirus (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). It is still difficult to get tested on the novel virus, so such measures would be able to prevent the spread of the disease.
The company’s failure to ensure its employees’ safety in the workplace has negatively affected the labor force and is potentially dangerous for the public-at-large. First of all, some workers have already contracted COVID-19 and, probably, infected some of their colleagues. Even if the majority of employees have not caught the disease yet, their health is at risk because of the inability to adhere to hand hygiene properly and close interaction with other workers. Furthermore, scholars have found out that the novel virus maintains its viability “for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel” (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020, para. 11).
It means that employees with COVID-19 can communicate the disease not only to their coworkers but also to Amazon’s customers around the world. Finally, since the company does not readily provide the staff with paid sick leave, workers are unlikely to stay home at first signs of respiratory illness because it will worsen their financial situation. They will continue working instead, thus increasing the probability of infecting others.
The Categorization of the Company’s Poor Response
It is clear that, although Amazon has taken on certain social responsibilities, it fails to fulfill at least some of them. Generally, a company’s failure or unwillingness to keep its promises as to the social well-being can be classified as greenwashing, bluewashing, or sweatwash (Podnar, 2014). Greenwashing refers to a company’s claims about its careful treatment of the environment and production of environmentally-friendly goods, while in fact, the firm disregards its influence on nature (Podnar, 2014).
The concept of bluewashing is similar to greenwashing, but the company’s deception, in this case, is concerned with human rights. It refers to businesses asserting that they follow the United Nations’ principles of human rights but violating those principles in reality (Podnar, 2014). Sweatwash means companies’ attempts to distract the attention of the public from their unethical labor practices, such as child labor (Podnar, 2014). All three concepts denote assuming social responsibilities only to create a favorable image of companies in the minds of people.
Amazon’s poor response to the crisis may be categorized as bluewashing. The company explicitly associates itself with the UN and human rights: “Guided by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we commit to embedding respect for human rights throughout our business” (Amazon, n.d., para. 2).
However, as the research into Amazon’s action in response to the crisis shows, the e-commerce giant has failed to fulfill its commitments related to its assumed social responsibilities. It may be concluded that the company uses the image of the UN to seek the approval of its customers, stakeholders, and the public-at-large, but does not make sufficient efforts toward meeting the UN standards.
There are specific reasons why companies engage in unethical practices, such as greenwashing, bluewashing, or sweatwash. One of the possible causes is that businesses consider benefits from dishonorable behavior to outweigh the potential costs that they can incur if their malpractice is disclosed (Podnar, 2014). Another reason is that companies do not have the ability or the desire to fulfill their commitments (Podnar, 2014). In the case of Amazon, the first explanation seems to be dominant, which will be explained further. Yet, there is also the probability that the firm simply does not want to keep its promises to the staff and society.
Price gouging on essential products is an undoubtedly unethical behavior of both profiteers and e-commerce companies that provide unprincipled individuals with convenient platforms for resale. Nevertheless, Amazon did not take sufficient measures to prevent people from profiting from the crisis. The possible reason for this is that Amazon itself wanted to gain profits from selling goods that are in high demand at increased prices. E-commerce companies are unlikely to be motivated to restrain unfair trade and remove overpriced advertisements because they earn money in the form of fees on each transaction (Dolmetsch et al., 2020).
Hence, the higher the price for an item on sale is, the more profits Amazon will receive when a third-party seller manages to sell it. Furthermore, price gouging is not regulated by laws in the US because of the confidence in the power of free markets (Dolmetsch et al., 2020). According to the Anglo-Saxon model of understanding CSR, such a situation should lead companies to fight against profiteering voluntarily to benefit the well-being of society. However, Amazon failed to meet this expectation of its customers and the public.
The company did not manage to ensure workers’ safety in the workplace because of the desire to make more profits. As was mentioned earlier, Amazon’s representatives stated that they did not prevent their employees from visiting restrooms and washing their hands. In this way, the firm seems to have demonstrated the public that it follows the recommendations of the healthcare officials and takes care of its staff. At the same time, employees are pressured to do as much work as they can to meet the company’s expectations as to the rate of delivering orders (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). Thus, although Amazon does not hinder workers from adhering to hand hygiene directly, it does it indirectly through increasing the workload and depriving employees of the time needed to perform the necessary hygienic procedures.
Amazon has also made a controversial decision intended to enhance its capability of processing an increased amount of orders. The company aims at hiring 100,000 new warehouse employees in the US (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020). The firm positions this decision as the opportunity for people who lost their jobs because of the crisis to get new paid work, thus helping the country to cope with unemployment (Greene & Dwoskin, 2020).
Obviously, employing new workers will help the company to increase its productivity and make more profits in such an opportune time. However, this decision is likely to have a negative impact on the well-being of workers and the public-at-large. The larger number of employees means that warehouses will become more crowded. Given the current insufficient measures toward providing the staff with a safe and healthy workplace, overcrowding represents a threat to the workers’ health because of a higher risk of communicating the disease. Yet, it seems that Amazon is ready to risk people’s lives in order to boost the effectiveness of its business.
Finally, the company’s unwillingness to pay workers while they quarantine themselves to avoid infecting others also demonstrates that the firm is ready to renounce its social responsibilities for the sake of monetary benefits. Paying wages to employees while they are not contributing to increasing the organization’s profits apparently misaligns with the company’s true values. Thus, Amazon’s statements as to its concern about human rights and workers’ health and safety serve only as an attractive image for satisfying customers and the public.
To sum up, the most appropriate model for understanding the CSR of Amazon is the Anglo-Saxon model characterized by low government regulation of the social responsibilities of businesses. During the current crisis concerned with the spread of COVID-19, the company has shown poor response to the negative impact of the pandemic. The main insufficient CSR actions of Amazon include the inability to promptly stop price gouging and the disregard of employees’ safety. Amazon’s poor response to the crisis may be characterized as bluewashing because the company has wrapped itself in the blue flag of the UN but failed to fulfill its commitments to the public.
Amazon. (n.d.). Amazon global human rights principles. Web.
Dolmetsch, C., Nayak, M., & Bloomberg. (2020). Amazon, Walmart, eBay pushed by states to stop price gougers. Fortune. Web.
Greene, J., & Dwoskin, E. (2020). Amazon’s warehouse workers sound alarms about coronavirus spread. The Washington Post. Web.
Podnar, K. (2014). Corporate communication: A marketing viewpoint. Routledge.
Puaschunder, J. M. (2019). Intergenerational equity: Corporate and financial leadership. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Walsh, H. (2020). eBay and Amazon failing to prevent sellers profiteering during coronavirus crisis. Which? Web.