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The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee, has urged shoppers to boycott Amazon’s British business after it paid only £4.2 million in tax last year. This diminutive figure equates to just 0.1 percent of Amazon’s UK revenues in 2013. It is only possible because when consumers in Europe purchase goods from any of its local websites, the payment is taken by a subsidiary company based in Luxembourg, a low tax country. Hodge’s encouragement of a boycott stems partly from the fact that consumer pressure was seen to have persuaded Starbucks paying tax last year.
What troubles the average consumer in the west, though, is that this type of action will conflict with their thirst for cheap goods. Unfortunately, issues of ethics and profitability (both for the corporation and for the consumer) appear to be difficult to mesh in a way which brings about selfish satisfaction. It is a problem which constantly re-surfaces, with our clamour for commodities generating vast pools of cheap labour in far-away places. If confronted about the ethical, social and moral consequences of their choice of consumption shoppers, more often than not, become defensive and posit that their spending equates to jobs – however low-paid – in those countries. Though this is an extremely simplistic economic view, it does produce a twin-pronged rebuttal to the moralist: not only does it excuse the consumer, but it also justifies their consumption by portraying it as a sound, conscientious investment. This may seem to veer slightly from the subject. However, it does reveal the fact that “out of sight, out of mind” appears to be the dominant principle for us consumers in the west (along with buying as much as possible).
This ignores our unique power to alter company choice – as shown by the change in Starbucks’s policy. There also seems to be a tendency to conflate legality with morality; many of those I have talked to about this issue see it as legitimate because it does not break any laws. Tax avoidance is out of sight in as much we cannot physically see the money slipping away from the grasp of the tax-man. However, its effects are most definitely felt – funds that could be channelled into public services are instead diverted to swell the coffers of private companies, such as Amazon. According to HMRC, in 2010-11, “tax evasion and avoidance together accounted for £9 billion” of the overall £32 billion tax gap. In an era of supposed austerity this is particularly repugnant, and makes a mockery of the argument that it is not immoral because it is not illegal. Everyone should pay their fair share of tax.
As a result of this we have at least one reason to boycott Amazon. However, it will take a paradigm shift in values if this kind of conscious capitalism is to last. For students on a limited budget, principled shopping may appear unfeasible. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which we can reclaim a degree of control, and not be in thrall to the capitalist imperative to consume. The perpetuation of consumption (which results in a throw-away culture) is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. This is the driving force behind our impulsion to spend large chunks of our time scrolling down website pages looking for the best offers, or trawling through shopping centres. Shopping is – perhaps unfortunately – an intrinsic part of our society and the decision to scale down your activity needn’t be seen as constricting, but liberating. It gives consumers the chance to make an otherwise mindless activity more worthwhile and existentially pleasing. Moreover, if it means less time is spent on these sites or in shopping centres, it in turn means more time can be spent engaging in other pastimes.
I would encourage everyone to engage in this habit of positive consumption, shunning companies who do not contribute to the collective wealth of society, and instead using those who make honest profits.