Around the world in a shopping cart

Christopher Mims had just embarked on his study of the global retail supply chain when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Quickly, he found, affluent consumers redoubled their efforts at the very activity Mims was investigating:

“Confronted by the stark reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a lifetime of consumerism into thinking the answer to the existential dread at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone else on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping.” (page 6-7; all quotes here are from Arriving Today)

Arriving Today is published by Harper Collins, September 2021.

More than ever, shopping during the pandemic meant shopping online. That added complications to the global logistics systems Mims was studying, and added another strand to the story he weaves in Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. (Harper Collins, 2021)

The book traces the movements of a single, typical online purchase – a USB charger – from the time it leaves a factory in Vietnam until it’s delivered to a buyer in the US. Sounds simple enough – but it’s an immensely complicated story, which Sims tells very well.

In the process he dives into the history and present of containerized shipping; working conditions for sailors, longshoremen, truckers, and warehouse employees; why items are scattered around a “fulfillment center” in the same way data files are scattered around on a computer drive; the great difficulty in teaching a robot to pick up soft packages wrapped in plastic film; and why no supercomputer can calculate the single best route for a UPS driver to take in making a hundred or more deliveries in the course of an average day.

How long can this system continue to swallow more resources, more small businesses, more lives? If there is a major weakness to Sims’ treatment, it is in suggesting that the online retail juggernaut must, inevitably, continue to grow indefinitely.

A key issue that is absent from the book is the energy cost of the global supply chain. Sims devotes a great deal of attention, however, to the brutal working conditions and relentless exploitation of working people in many segments of the delivery system. At the very least, this evidence should lead one to wonder when a tipping point will be reached. When, for example, might workers or voters be driven to organize an effective counterforce to insatiably acquisitive billionaires like Jeff Bezos? When, more grimly, might the portion of the population with discretionary income become so small they can no longer prop up the consumer economy?

“Taylorism – the dominant ideology of the modern world”

The unifying thread in Sims’ presentation is this: “Taylorism” – the early 20th-century management practice of breaking down factory work into discrete movements that can be “rationalized” for greater company profits – has now turned many more sectors into assembly lines. Today, Sims writes, “the walls of the factory have dissolved. Every day, more and more of what we do, how we consume, even how we think, has become part of the factory system.”

The factory system, in Sims’ telling, now stretches across oceans and across continents. It finds clear expression in facilities that are owned or controlled by the management practices of Amazon. In Amazon’s sorting, packing and shipping facilities, what makes the company “particularly Darwinian” is the floating rate that constantly and coldly passes judgment on employees.

With warehouse work divided into discrete, measurable and countable tasks, management algorithms constantly track the number of operations completed by each worker. Those who perform in the bottom 25% are routinely fired and replaced. As a result, Sims writes, “most workers in an Amazon warehouse are constantly in danger of losing their jobs, and they know it.”

There is no paid sick leave, so cash-strapped employees often have no choice but to work even when injured or sick. (Free coffee and free Ibuprofen are made available to help them work through fatigue or pain.) But if ill health causes a drop in performance they won’t “make the rate” and they will be fired. Those who are exceptionally physically fit, and who seldom get sick, are still likely to be worn down by the relentless pace eventually.

To replace workers, Sims says, “the company has all but abandoned interviewing new hires.” Screening and training new employees can be expensive processes, but they are processes in which Amazon invests little. A constant cohort of new employees are dropped into the stream and they simply sink or swim:

“Everyone I talked to about their first months at Amazon said that the attrition rate they witnessed was greater than 50 percent in the first two months.” (page 209)

Some companies might regard high employee turnover as a huge liability. For Amazon, Sims explains, high turnover is not a bug, it’s a feature. The turnover allows the company “to grab only the most able-bodied members of America’s workforce” (page 235) and to constantly replace them with new employees who haven’t yet gotten sick or injured.

If that weren’t enough, the high turnover benefits Amazon in another important way: “it makes it almost impossible for workers to unionize.” (page 210) 

UPS trucks in Manhattan, 2010. Photo by Jeremy Vandel, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

The last mile

“[Amazon’s] relentless measurement, drive for efficiency, loose hiring standards, and moving targets for hourly rates are the perfect system for ingesting as many people as possible and discarding all but the most physically fit.” (page 235-236)

As Amazon’s share of retail shopping grows and it Taylorizes its warehousing, there is another big link in the supply chain in which the company sees opportunity to slash worker compensation and boost corporate profits.

Until recently transportation of packages between sorting centers, and along the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps, has been controlled by a wide array of trucking companies. One of the biggest of these companies, UPS, is a throwback to a day when most truck drivers were unionized, well paid, and received benefits like paid sick days, company health insurance, and pensions.

A driver for UPS is well trained, often very experienced, and learns to “go from stopping their truck to getting a package out of it in nine seconds.” (page 271) But a full-time driver for UPS also makes more than $30/hour plus benefits. Jeff Bezos, who increased his wealth by $65 billion in the first year of the pandemic, covets the paycheque of that UPS driver, along with the paycheque of anyone else in the supply chain whose job, if it can’t be robotized, could be turned over to a minimum-wage gig worker, aka “independent contractor”.

UPS and FedEx, Sims writes, together have 80 per cent of the US package delivery business. FedEx, along with nearly all other parcel-delivery companies, pay roughly minimum wage, with minimal benefits. Care to guess which company Amazon would like to emulate?

Indeed, as of 2018 Amazon itself has roared into the delivery business. “By the middle of 2020s,” Sims writes, “Amazon Logistics … is projected to take the number one spot from UPS.” (page 252)

Citing the research of Brandeis University professor David Weil, Sims concludes:

“Everything about Amazon’s decision to hire delivery companies that hire drivers, rather than hiring those drivers directly, is about pushing down wages, eliminating workplace protections, evading liability in the event of accidents, avoiding workplace litigation, eliminating the expense of benefits, and eliminating the possibility of drivers ever unionizing ….” (page 278)

In the last sentence of his book, Sims cites the 100 billion packages per year now shipped through the online retail supply chain, and he exhorts us to “imagine a future in which that number has doubled or tripled; imagine a future in which it is the way virtually every finished object gets anywhere.” (page 288)

Let’s imagine: Factory jobs in every sector will have moved to the lowest-wage countries with adequate industrial capabilities. Formerly well-paid factory workers in Rust Belt towns will compete for Amazon warehouse jobs that offer them minimum wage, for as many months as their bodies can sustain the constantly accelerating pace of simple repetitive tasks. Robots will have replaced human wage-earners wherever possible. And last mile delivery drivers will take orders from Amazon but receive their meager paycheques from other companies whose names most of us will never see.

In that paradise of capitalist productivity, who besides Jeff Bezos will still have enough income to fill their shopping carts?


Image at top: Your Cart is Full, composed by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain graphics.