Amazon, I'm Calling You Out

In 2011, Amazon’s sales were $43.59 billion and its profit was $7.64 billion. It is the world’s biggest etailer. That's part of their Seattle headquarters at the left.

And how much did Amazon donate to charity? It's not clear. Although I suspect that MercyCorps and the Red Cross have both received meaningful donations from Amazon.com.

We do, however, know that Amazon.com spent $1.5 million in lobbying in 2011, and more than $21 million since 2001. Likewise, we know that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire founder and chief executive, his mother and father, and his wife, author Mackenzie Bezos, have given more than $28,000 to Washington Senator Patty Murray (D) since 2009.

Amazon’s website reports that its “customers have contributed more than $35 million to global relief programs since 2001.” But Amazon’s piece of that is probably in-kind only.

A statement at Amazon.com says:
“We… contribute to the communities where our employees and customers live. Our contributions can be seen in many ways – through our donations to dozens of nonprofits across the United States, through the disaster relief campaigns that we host on our homepage, through our employees’ volunteer efforts, through the grants that we make to the writing community, and through the Amazon Web Services credits that we provide to educators.”
For instance, the Fernley Little League, Fernley Wadsworth Lions Club and Fernley Youth Football. Amazon has operations in Fernley, Nevada. Fernley is on I-80 about 20 miles east of Reno.

Apart from its donations to causes like the Pike Place Market Foundation, and the Macungie Farmers Market, Amazon takes a rather libertarian view on corporate donations to causes. The website explains the company's approach:
“At Amazon, if we do our job right, our greatest contribution to the good of society will come from our core business activities: lowering prices, expanding selection, driving convenience, driving frustration-free packaging, creating Kindle, innovating in web services, and other initiatives we'll work hard on in the future.”
Milton Friedman couldn’t have put it better himself.

“The discussions of the ‘social responsibilities of business,’” Friedman wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1970, “are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor. What does it mean to say that ‘business’ has responsibilities? Only people have responsibilities.”

Instead, companies should maximize their profits and return capital to shareholders so that individuals could then donate to whatever cause they wished to, or not. For companies to do anything besides maximize profits was simply immoral, Friedman wrote.

Listen, I’d be the last guy to say that Amazon should somehow be required to be a more generous corporate donor or to take up cause marketing in a notable way. (Although I’m not above shaming a company into doing either or both).

But Bezos, who is famously very bottom-line oriented, and his company seem not to have gotten the memo that cause marketing helps the bottom line and that customers expect a certain level of corporate charitable donations in 2012 in a way they didn't in 1970.

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