Capitalism’s apologists constantly assert the ‘efficiency’ of the market. Yet corporations like Amazon, driven solely by profit, are responsible for tonnes of waste each week. To end this chaos, we need a socialist plan of production.
Despite their reputation for ruthless efficiency, Amazon has been revealed as a producer of enormous amounts of waste, with the company’s distribution centres throwing away thousands of unsold products each week.
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. This included expensive, brand-new electronic goods, as well as many items that had been returned in like-new condition.
Exclusive: Amazon is destroying millions of items of unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses every year, an ITV News investigation has uncovered.
Many of the products – including smart TVs and laptops – are often new and unused. https://t.co/OJjexB0YQd#AmazonWaste pic.twitter.com/UR7XrLWvIM
— ITV News (@itvnews) June 21, 2021
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 it was revealed that the luxury brand was buying back its own stock and destroying it. £26.8 million 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 were especially outraged to see essential medical PPE – such as facemasks – simply binned.
A similar situation has been uncovered at French and German Amazon sites too.
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.
The GMB union also commented on the story, calling Amazon a “greedy, profit-driven company that would always put profits before the planet”.
Government voices have not been so moved by this scandal, however. 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 of a “disposal culture” (Greenpeace) or “throwaway culture” (DEFRA), but of 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 therefore more economically prudent to send excess stock to landfill or recycling centres. The environmental cost does not enter into the bosses’ calculation.
The excess unsold stock that finds itself piling up in Dunfermline – or in the 24 other fulfilment centres Amazon holds across the UK; or in the thousands more across the world – is there as a result of the blind economic laws of the market.
This ‘invisible hand’ – so we are told by the apologists of capitalism – connects every buyer with a seller, ensuring that the free market is the most economically efficient system possible, with the optimal distribution of society’s resources!
The reality is quite at odds 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 costs.
This wealthy minority directs the daily economic activity of billions of workers, owning and running all the factories, warehouses, etc. for their private gain.
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 showed, however, that this enormous volume of commodity production tends towards overproduction: more is produced than can be profitably sold on the market.
The tonnes of unsold stock at 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, asserting 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.
Socialist Appeal has previously reported on the chaos of the global recycling and waste management system. 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 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 Agbogbloshie 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.
Making exports to countries like Turkey or Malaysia more costly, however, 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. In the final analysis, it is the whole system that is at fault.
Capitalism – based on private ownership, profit, and competition – means enormous waste and inefficiency, with even greater human and environmental costs.
To achieve a sustainable, rational economy, the anarchy of the market has to be ended – replaced with a socialist plan of production based on public ownership and workers’ control.