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BEZAWADA: Power of the consumer must be exercised more diligently

Column: Traipse the Fine Line

Considering the United States’ track record of conflicting decisions, a day devoted exclusively to steep discounts and unbridled shopping commences the moment the clock strikes midnight, after a day intended to offer thanks for existing blessings, is actually not so ironic.

But this particular irony is crucial for a number of reasons not limited to the United States.

A German workers’ union called Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft (ver.di), which boasts more than 2 million members, mobilized thousands of Amazon employees on Nov. 29, Black Friday, to strike out of centers in six German cities. 

These workers claimed they already lacked a living wage, and in light of Black Friday, they protested the further detrimental impact of anticipated demand — the results of which were, indeed, immense. On Black Friday alone, online sales single-handedly peaked at $7.4 billion, according to Reuters.

The protests were not concentrated in Germany: They erupted across Europe. The same union, ver.di, organized strikes at Amazon centers in French cities Brétigny-sur-Orge and Clichy. These protests were aimed at the apparent environmentally unfriendly effects of Amazon’s rapid delivery services, the company aims “to become a net-zero carbon company 10 years ahead of the Paris Climate,” according to Amazon.

The GMB Union, a United Kingdom-based union that has approximately 620,000 members, arranged walkouts at Amazon centers as well. Rather than economic or environmental principles, these protests were “primarily concerned with safe working conditions for Amazon workers in the country, who are frequently injured, knocked unconscious and taken away in ambulances,” according to the article from Reuters.

Ver.di has been organizing such campaigns for nearly six years. Considering the magnitude of workers rallying for causes spanning the gamut, its concerns are not unfounded. 

Rather than improving, conditions largely continue to deteriorate, or at least remain the same. Despite the number of enforced policies and protected rights, combined with political and social activism, why are things not changing for the better?

It is alarming to grasp that a purchase you make during a holiday, celebrated solely in America, has repercussions on lives so far away, but it is a reality that we, as constituents of a free market, must be conscious of. 

Corporations must now contend with frighteningly high levels of global demand lest they risk customer loyalty and potential sales. But the population is rising, demand is increasing with it and the range of human needs and wants is virtually limitless.

More importantly, now more than ever, people have the monetary power to make do on their demand — which in turn propels demand higher. “In the most successful countries, the average citizen now enjoys a material standard of living that would have made the greatest king of 200 years ago turn green with envy,” said John V. C. Nye, a professor of economics and history at Washington University in St. Louis.

But even in poorer countries, the standard of living is comparably higher than before. "Focusing only on the so-called Third World, we find that per capita economic growth, improvements in life expectancy and declines in mortality from disease and malnutrition outstripped the performance of the most advanced nations,” Nye said.

The United States in particular has enjoyed a remarkably steady 2% annual growth rate in real per capita income, lowered mortality and much cleaner air and water than in the previous centuries. 

All of these aspects together paint a picture of the present booming global demand and the privileges we in America take for granted — a double advantage that can have powerful outcomes, both negative, such as the plight of overworked warehouse laborers, and positive, depending on how it is exercised. Unfortunately, the current tendency leans toward the former.

Take the Popeyes chicken sandwich craze back in late August. After a Twitter feud between Popeyes and Chick-Fil-A went viral, rage surrounding the sandwich’s debut skyrocketed. But as amusing as the internet makes things seem, the chaos translated to an overwhelming slew of activity in Popeyes, which sold approximately 1,000 sandwiches per store in a day. 

This placed an undue amount of stress and strain on employees, one of whom stated that, during an 11-hour Saturday shift, he was “working like a slave in the back.” 

“The added demand increased the amount of work tenfold, while I still get paid next to nothing,” said a former employee who had quit since the sandwich onslaught.

The adage goes, “driving is a privilege, not a right.” The same mindset applies to purchasing. While we wield considerable power in the form of free market demand, we must be careful about how that demand — our decisions — impacts others. Generation Z is already on the move, championing sustainable, ethically sourced products that do not harm the environment or exploit labor. 

But things will not change for the better unless the rest of us follow.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in marketing and double-minoring in japanese and digital communications and information media. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs every alternate Tuesday.


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