Published March 17, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, award-winning journalists Alec MacGillis (Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America) and Amelia Pang (Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods) explored the hidden costs of our globalized, internet-driven consumer economy, discussing forced labor camp enslavement in China, as well as the ubiquity, exploitation, and corruption of Amazon.com, Inc., whose power now extends beyond the control of governments; with Nelson Camilo Sánchez.

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Watch the recording of this event (and read the transcript below):

Thanks to our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company.

“Alec MacGillis is one of the very best reporters in America. By always going his own way, he finds stories and truths that others avoid. Fulfillment paints a devastating picture of Amazon, but it also gives human voices to the larger story of our unequal economy and society. Fulfillment is an essential book in the literature of America’s self-destruction.” ―George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of Our Man the National Book Award–winning The Unwinding

“Journalist Pang debuts with a vivid and powerful report on Chinese forced labor camps and their connections to the American marketplace. Cinematic… Engrossing and deeply reported, this impressive exposé will make readers think twice about their next purchase.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Community Partners

Thanks to our community partners for sharing information about this event: Amnesty International – Charlottesville Group and Amnesty International at UVA.

Transcript

JANE KULOW:  Hello, and welcome to The Human Cost of One-Click Orders, a program in the All-Virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers, please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize it anytime during the event, by using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re please consider making a donation to support the festivals ongoing work at VaBook.org/give. Thank you to our community partners for this event, Amnesty International Charlottesville, and Amnesty International at UVA for sharing information about the event.

We also greatly appreciate the support of all the Festival’s sponsors, donors, and community partners. Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers, Alec MacGillis, author of Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, is a senior reporter for ProPublica and the recipient of the George Polk Award, the Robin Toner Prize, and other honors. He is also the author of The Cynic, a 2014 biography of Mitch McConnell, and he lives in Baltimore.

Amelia Pang, author of Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods, is an award-winning journalist who has written for publications, such as Mother Jones, and the New Republic, covering topics ranging from organic import fraud, to the prevalence of sexual violence on native American reservations. She lives near Washington, D.C.

Our moderator today is Nelson Camilo Sánchez, is director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the UVA School of Law. His research focuses on justice in post-conflict scenarios, land governance, and peace building, and corporate accountability for human rights violations. Alec, Amelia, Camilo, thank you for joining us today. Camilo, it’s all yours.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Thank you very much, Jane. And thank you, Alec, Amelia for these fantastic books. It’s been a pleasure to read your work, not so much about the topic, but I think these books are not only important but timely. I’m very glad for you not only to be in the process of doing the research to get these books out, but to join us tonight for this panel.

I have a couple of questions and I’m going to take some other questions from our attendees tonight. And let me start by asking about the process of conceiving the books, at what point and how did you realize that all of those hours of research were book material, that you had a narrative that was screaming to be told. And what is that narrative about? What are your books about? Why don’t we start with Alec? 

ALEC MACGILLIS:  Well, thank you, Camilo. I’m very, very glad to be here and thanks to the Festival for organizing this. For me, this book actually began not about Amazon. It’s often thought of as a book about Amazon, but it began as a book about regional inequality, the growing gaps between places in America. I’m a reporter who spent a lot of time out around the country, and I just have grown increasingly concerned, even alarmed by the disparities that I saw when I would go around the country between winner-take-all cities and left-behind towns.

I had been wrestling with this for years and thinking about how to write about it, how to capture it in a book. And what I finally decided to do was to frame it around Amazon, to use Amazon as a lens onto the country and these glaring regional divides.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Amelia.

AMELIA PANG:  Oh, yes, I started reading Alec’s book and it is absolutely gripping, and fascinating, and important, and definitely recommend everyone to read it. I’m the author of Made in China, I’m really excited to be here tonight. Thank you so much for the introduction Camilo. The main narrative that really spoke to me when I was doing research about all the different Chinese SOS letters written by prisoners who had ended up in the US, and other democratic countries, bought by consumers who had purchased these products.

I found this one particular letter story particularly unforgettable, because it was written by a political prisoner, and he had been making what was these Halloween decorations, these decorative gravestones that you hang… It’s really a trivial product that you kind of hang at a lawn, or you might use it as a decoration for a children’s Halloween party.

But it was actually manufactured in a Chinese Gulag that, where there were very much real graves all around them, there the forced laborers if they died from the egregious labor conditions that they were going through, they were buried in unmarked graves at the camps. I thought that story in particular, just a product that was being made and where it was made, was a really great way to take a deep dive into the many, many problems about the way that we source from overseas countries, especially China.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Excellent. While I read the books, I kept thinking of how the one-click economy promotes the destruction, an assailing destruction of a space perception. Various physical experience goes from our laptop to our doorstep, right? And we don’t realize that for that purchase to happen, a lot of processes that take place in different places and physical spaces need to be put in place.

But your books fantastically just reconstruct that geography. This is something that I thought, it’s kind of behind-the-scenes reconstruction of the geography of e-commerce, because your books take us to different cities, regions, even countries. I’m interested in that. Why don’t you tell us more about the trail of the book, and where do your books take us to, and why? Why don’t we start with you Amelia, that you take us all the way to China.

AMELIA PANG:  My book starts actually with an average American consumer, her name is Julie Keith, she’s the mother of two. She’s actually working on decorating her child’s Halloween party. And that’s when she comes across this very, very cheaply purchased product from Kmart, these gravestones that were made of styrofoam. And it actually had sat in her storage for two years before she remembered to open it. It was one of those things that somebody had purchased because it was insanely cheap or too good of a deal to pass on such a bargain deal.

But nobody actually even had a real need for it, it sat in storage for two years before she even remembered she had it. And when she finally opened it, she was shocked to receive an SOS letter. It’s written by the political prisoner in China who had made and manufactured this very product in a labor camp. The book tells his story, how he landed in a labor camp. But also more importantly, what are the problems in our supply chain that make it really easy for things manufactured in labor camps to end up selling at a Kmart in Portland, Oregon.

ALEC MACGILLIS:  Fulfillment is really all about geography. That’s really how the book was conceived as a kind of portrait of the entire landscape of our country. And how things have kind of sorted out within that landscape. It does not go overseas, it does not go to the source of the products as Amelia’s book does, and I’ve read it and it’s utterly harrowing. And I thought I knew about these things, but I didn’t really. It’s so startling, and so needs to be reckoned with, I really urge people to read it. 

Fulfillment is about the domestic side of it, the American side of this whole geography. And it really endeavors to take you all the way from the headquarter cities of Amazon, Seattle, and now Washington, D.C. These cities that have become hyper prosperous in their growth and success to the point where they’re unaffordable for many residents, thousands of people, longtime residents being displaced, terrible congestion, just really global, almost dystopian kind of levels of inequality within these winner-take-all cities.

And then it takes you down to essentially the warehouse towns, the towns, the cities that have now become almost kind of like the pantry for our delivery economy, where workers are making $13, $14, $15 an hour sorting the goods, packing them, and sending them on. You go from Seattle and D.C. to warehouse cities like Baltimore, Dayton, Ohio. In Dayton, Ohio, you meet a young man who makes cardboard boxes, really kind of like the very bottom of that sort of domestic chain, making $11, $12 an hour making cardboard boxes.

You meet truck drivers in Southeast Ohio. You just kind of go all the way up this ladder, and you see how what has happened in this kind of Amazon tech giant driven economy is a sorting out of cities and towns, not just between urban and rural, but between cities, between winner cities and left-behind cities. There’s something about this new economy that we have now that has created gaps between cities on a scale that we’ve never seen before. And it’s really unhealthy for both ends of the spectrum really.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Excellent. And similarly, the one-click economy is intended to eliminate human interaction, right? That is in fact, a measure of a transaction’s success, “Ah, I bought something and I didn’t have to talk to anyone, no one would intervene.” But this book not only challenges that idea of technological self-sufficiency, but goes on to vindicate the stories and the voices, more importantly, of those on whom this system depends. Who are the humans behind this apparently humanless e-commerce model? Why don’t you Amelia for example, tell us more about those people that you encounter?

AMELIA PANG:  Right. A lot of these regular factories that a company like Walmart, or Kmart, H&M would typically source from, that it’s approved as an approved factory. A lot of times they are very rural workers who are very far away from their families and not necessarily working in great conditions either. But due to the ways that our companies form relationships with these factories, and a lot of times they don’t actually give them enough time or enough money to make the products in-house, and actually pay real workers to make them.

The factories have to secretly subcontract the work to a lot of forced labor facilities where the detainees are not paid at all, and have to work under pretty torturous conditions to meet our deadlines. In these types of labor camps a lot of the detainees, most of them never received any kind of sentencing in the court. They don’t have access to a lawyer most of the time. And so they’re really held there arbitrarily for an indefinite amount of time.

And a lot of them are political dissidents, pro-democracy activists, religious dissidents, ethnic minorities like Uyghurs and Tibetans, and the civil rights lawyers that try to bravely defend these people. A lot of times these are the types of people that end up in labor camps doing 15 to 20 hours of manufacturing work, and not paid for it at all.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  You do elaborate on Uyghurs and religious minorities. I wonder if you would tell us more about those two type of prisoners and why they’re targeted.

AMELIA PANG:  Yes. These camps are not necessarily always lucrative, because they’re managed usually by the security bureau rather than actual businessmen, people who have any kind of business training and business acumen. The Chinese government actually has to subsidize some of these camps with a lot of money for it to continue operations. But the reasons why these camps exist for the most part is because they’re extremely useful way for the Chinese government to silence certain demographics that they see as a threat. Whether it’s political dissidents like pro-democracy activists, or the ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs, you’ve probably heard about.

There’s a large number of them, millions of them being rounded up in these types of camps because for… The short answer to this question is for many years they’ve been living under pretty oppressive conditions. And the Chinese government is extremely worried that that’s a group that may potentially revolt. And then there’s also religious groups like the Falun Gong, which have a pretty good ability to organize large protests in China, and underground Christians. It’s a really  wide variety of different demographics that end up in these camps.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  And Alec.

ALEC MACGILLIS:  So much of Fulfillment is about that loss of human interaction, and the loss of community that we now experience in the one-click economy. Actually, the first chapter of the book is actually called Community, and it’s about the loss of community in one city in that case in Seattle. But throughout the book, you have people who are struggling now because they’ve lost that kind of interaction.

I’ll give two main examples, two of my sort of kind of favorite characters in the book, figures in the book. One is a former steelworker in Baltimore who spent more than 30 years working at a huge steel mill outside Baltimore at a place called Sparrow’s Point. A peninsula outside Baltimore called Sparrow’s Point, that was at one point the largest steel mill in the entire world with 3,000 people in the 1950s. It was a whole company town, 5-6,000 people living in this company town. That was all wiped completely away, and it’s now been replaced by a logistics business park, a whole bunch of warehouses.

And I found a gentleman who worked 30 years at the steel mill, incredibly difficult, strenuous, dangerous work, but loved it because it had purpose, and a sense of community, and a sense of fellowship, and camaraderie. And after the steel mill closed, he went to work in the Amazon warehouse there, making less than half of what he made at the steel mill. The work was not as dangerous of course, but it was incredibly isolating and alienating, and he couldn’t hack it. It was so utterly kind of, he felt so alone. He felt completely alone on the job. None of that kind of fellowship that he had at the steel mill and he finally quit after just a few years.

I was talking recently to another former steel worker from the mill who lives right nearby. And he commented on the fact that he’s noticed that the workers at the warehouse now, when they’re leaving their shifts, go screaming out of the warehouse, just flying out in their cars, so much they’re going driving so fast that they’ve had to put big speed bumps into the complex to try to slow people down. And as if people are just desperate to get out of there, because there’s just absolutely no sense of community or fellowship there. You would do your shift, your monotonous isolating job, and then you get the heck out and get home. Whereas back in the day, of course, the workers would often roll out of the steel mill and just as a bunch, as a crew roll into the bar, or the diner, or whatever, it might be.

The other group of people that I focus on in one chapter are small business owners in El Paso. People who run small office supply companies in El Paso, essentially think of like the Dunder Mifflin from The Office, except it’s in El Paso, not Scranton. And these are people running small businesses with 12 or 15 people who sell office supply goods to local governments, and school districts, and businesses. 

And they have done it for years, they pride themselves on the service they provide, and their human interactions with their customers. As they told me, described stories about having a border patrol person calling up and saying, “I just ordered thousands of the wrong kind of batteries, or thousands of the wrong kinds of pens. I bought it from someone else, I’m so sorry, but could you please help me out? I’m going to lose my job if I can’t get help here.” And they of course help them out, because it’s a human interaction, it’s their customer. 

Now, these suppliers are all being pressured by Amazon to simply start selling on the Amazon marketplace as third-party sellers. The local governments and school districts say, “Hey, we’ll just buy from you on Amazon.” What that misses of course is that Amazon is going to take a 15% cut, at least from that transaction, from that middleman transaction. And it’s all going to kind of get routed literally through the one-click instead of that direct interaction between the local office supply company and the buyer.

And these business owners just talk to me how much that bothered them, not just the cut that they were losing, but just that they just knew that this new arrangement was going to cost the community in terms of tax revenue. It was just going to cost it in terms of all of the kind of gristle that holds a community together. It’s such a big part of what’s being lost right now.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Gotcha. There were two movies that came to my mind because actually stories that there are there in the book. If you enjoy American Factory and Nomadland, you’re going to love the book. Because they tell stories that are there anytime. And there is a very controversial statement in Fulfillment, and about this idea of the winner takes all, and that model. And it is the idea of that model is an inevitable fate, we cannot do anything about it, it’s just the way it is. 

And I’m taking this idea from a quote from Mr. Bezos when he says something like, “Amazon behaves the way it does, because it is the only way for the business to survive.” For him, it is not about grit, it is about survival instinct, right? Which is very disturbing in itself. But even if we accept that there is that predatory nature is a given, I have this question in my mind, and maybe because I’m a human rights lawyer, and what’s the role of the government in all of this? 

This is a radical transformation of many social spheres, what’s the role of the government, and the same thing for Made in China, right? When you see these egregious abuses, you think of how we can cure this, right? What can we do and what is government doing? What should we do? And for good or for bad. And maybe Amelia can start with how the book speaks to this question.

AMELIA PANG:  Yes. My book definitely covers a lot of the failures of the U.S. government in addressing this issue despite our agreements with China that especially is supposed to address prison labor. And this includes the last administration, although Trump got praised for being a China, so-called China Hawk, there was a lot more that he could have done. For instance, one key legislation that should have passed, and really should pass as soon as possible, if we do care about human rights as a country, is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

And what that would do is ban all products from the Xinjiang region. And that is a region where most of the Uyghur lived, and a region where there is an overwhelming amount of hard evidence that there’s a high concentration of forced labor camps. And as of now, there is no way for our companies to independently send people to go investigate to ensure that their products are not being manufactured by forced labors.

Banning products from Xinjiang would be really impactful, because that’s an area that China has invested a significant amount of funds in developing. And if they lose a major trading partner in that region, then it could really push China to rethink its policies towards Uyghurs, and maybe even the larger forced labor issue if it realizes the world isn’t going to stand for this, if all their trading partners aren’t going to stand for this. 

But unfortunately the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is really stalled. It was reintroduced in the house and the Senate, but it remains to be seen whether it can actually get passed. That’s the role that the U.S. government can play, but has yet to play.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Alec.

ALEC MACGILLIS:  I see two main avenues for the government or policy structural change to address this problem. The first is what is unfolding right now in Alabama, where there’s a union election happening, which is pretty incredible. A union election is happening at a large Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Historical echo there is that Bessemer is named for the British engineer who invented the steel making process. And Bessemer was a steel region in Alabama. Like Baltimore now it’s a warehouse area, and they’ve got a union election there. 

And if you could see warehouses, Amazon warehouses start to organize, that would be pretty extraordinary. And that would go at least some ways toward improving conditions, improving this kind of work. You would sort of set us on the historical arc that we saw last century, where jobs like those steel jobs for were very low paid. Those workers were very badly treated until they got the unions in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and that made a big difference. 

And if we start seeing that cycle happen now in the warehouse realm, that would be a very big deal. And so the government’s role in this case is to make sure that the elections can happen freely and fairly. And the fact that President Biden spoke out as he did a week or two ago on that point was a very big deal. The other area where the government actually has a much bigger role to play is in antitrust. One big reason for this regional inequality that Fulfillment is about is economic concentration.

And to put it very bluntly, one reason you have this huge gap between between cities and towns is that business and commerce that used to be kind of dispersed all around the country in various sectors is now sucked, and kind of hoovered, and drawn into only a handful of places, because the economy is so dominated by just a handful of companies. Media ad revenue that used to be spread all around the country among various newspapers and radio and TV is now kind of sucked into the Bay Area where you’ve got two companies, Google and Facebook, that control more than 60% of ad revenue.

In retail, money that had been, commerce that used to be spread all around the country, in mom and pop stores, department stores, regional department stores, is now increasingly kind of drawn into Amazon and in the cities where Amazon is headquartered. So you end up with hyper prosperous Seattle. And so for the government now, to finally, after all these years of letting our antitrust laws kind of atrophy, and our approach to monopoly kind of atrophy, to re-engage on that score would be a very big deal. 

And there are signs that this might actually happen now, the Biden administration has made some appointments that are promising in this regard. And there’s even a sense that this is an area where you could have to have some bipartisan consensus. Both parties have expressed concerns about the tech giants, they’re coming from different motivations, but there’s a possible common ground here. And it’s one reason that Amazon put a second headquarters in Washington D.C., is that it knew that right now its main threat is more from the federal government than it is from other corporate rivals.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  I enjoy very much the chapter on Washington D.C., and how they spent all of this money on lobbyists, and all of those firms, and they created their own firm to do this. Which I think it’s one of the issues that moving forward, we need to check how, if these promises are going to actually return something real, is how much pressure they get from firms like this. 

And before moving on to our audience’s questions, I wanted to talk a little bit about our role as users, as buyers, consumers of this cheap products. The cheap Halloween stuff that we don’t really need. And that stuff you, Amelia, actually say in Made in China, and grounded on research that despite knowing that our actions will have dire consequences, we human beings cannot help but take pleasure in buying on-sale merchandise. But that is something that we just cannot help it, right? What does your research say about human nature, about our weaknesses, about our contradictions, and not to leave the audience in a deep state of depression about our strengths? What do your books tell about human nature?

AMELIA PANG:  There’s just studies that found that our brains light up when we see a really cheap price for a product that we really want, and when we feel like we’re getting a big bargain deal, we feel a lot of happiness, and that’s a powerful feeling. And there’s just studies that have shown that during the critical moments leading up to a consumer’s decision to buy a product or not, there’s usually two competing groups of considerations. One is price and quality, how much, these kinds of personal decisions, and the other group that’s competing for the brain’s attention is how it was made, and whether there were any ethical concerns about this product.

And unfortunately with the way the human mind works, you only have enough room in our space, or enough space in our brains for one main group to take hold as we’re buying products. But that’s not to say that we will always fail in this regard. Another study actually found that if consumers read a note about why it was unethical to buy a certain product, it particularly studied counterfeit products, then if they read it right before they make the decision to buy, then most often they will choose not to buy the product. They would choose to sacrifice their own desires to make an ethical choice. 

But unfortunately this phenomenon, according to the researcher, only lasts a couple of minutes up to half an hour usually and then we forget. And then the price and our desire for the product kind of becomes the main concern again. But I do feel hopeful for change because as we’re learning more about just how horrific a lot of these labor camps are, I feel confident that more and more people are going to be able to hold that information at the forefront of their brains for a longer and longer period of time, especially in these labor camps where in these women’s camps, sexual violence is extremely prevalent, sexual abuse.

So you really have detainees who spend so much of their days and nights doing forced labor. And when they’re not doing forced labor they are experiencing sexual violence. That is how our cheap products are made. Because at the end of the day, I also talked to a lot of factory owners, and factory managers when I was doing research for my book, and they said, “We just cannot realistically meet the low prices that these companies demand from us, and ethical conditions that they also demand from us.”

Those are factors, the price, and the production deadlines, a lot of these factors are things that our companies can control, and that we as consumers can control and start pushing our companies to do better. So Made in China is ultimately about empowering consumers, how to make more informed and ethical purchases. And I know we’ve covered a lot of really depressing topics during this talk, but I do want to highlight that I do list some key things that we should start looking for in our favorite brand sustainability pages, or their corporate social responsibility pages. 

And if we find that our favorite brands are not revealing certain key information that may signify whether they’re using forced labor in the supply chain, then we should call them out for it, and just push them to do better in terms of transparency. I hope viewers can take away that Made in China‘s ultimately a book about hope and change.

ALEC MACGILLIS:  Yeah, I found those pages of Amelia’s book, incredibly helpful, and it’s very specific and concrete in terms of what actually can be done. I saw Fulfillment as very much directed at the consumer, because I do believe that we all have agency, that yes, there are these large structural forces and systemic forces. Yes, the economy has changed in all these different ways, but each of us has agency as a consumer and as a citizen to make certain choices.

And I really saw the audience for my book as the kind of highly educated urban metro, probably liberal-leaning, American who maybe buys quite a bit of stuff on Amazon, and doesn’t think too much about it. And the book is meant to kind of open their eyes, and to get them to think harder about what’s behind the one-click. I have to say I’m even more worried about this now than I was say a year ago.

I mean, the pandemic has greatly, greatly accelerated what the book describes with the shift to a one-click kind of way of life. You simply can’t overstate how much Amazon has grown in this last year, it’s astonishing. They’ve had to hire 500,000 more people not counting drivers to handle this huge surge in orders. Orders are up about 40% year over year. Stocks up 86%. Bezos personal fortune grew $58 billion just in a year. They’ve had to build 50% more warehouse space. 

That’s just a fact that for a lot of us, the one-click purchase that before was something that maybe did with a little bit of compunction, a little bit of stigma, lost that stigma this year, because it was seen as something we were doing out of to bend the curve, to flatten the curve out of public health mandates. And we could do it righteously, and I do worry that… I was struck by the alacrity with which a lot of people embraced this kind of existence. 

And I do hope that those habits don’t stay with us 100%, and that we learn how to re-engage with the world around us, with the community around us, with the actual people and physical spaces and stores, and just life that’s in our place rather than just hunkering down at the screen. That is my hope that both these books will help with that.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Thank you very much both, because that’s actually is what one of our attendees questioned, Chris asked about what can I do to make things better? Because this is so big, is actually Chris’ question. And I think what Amelia mentioned on this in her book, a really good way is to start realizing what we’re doing, and how to take action on that. And there is another question, Ethan asked, and I will share the sentiment, that it is not that we can just completely unplug, right?

Some of us depend on certain technology, or is saying for example those of us who depend on fun tech, is there any way to search for brands with relatively ethical supply chains? Is there any way that we can locate ourselves or try to find those? Did you come across those, either companies, or places in which we can search for those that are doing better than others?

AMELIA PANG:  Unfortunately, I have to say, I think the way that most companies do business with China, and the way that they investigate their factories in China, I don’t really think there’s any company out there that could safely guarantee consumers that there is no forced labor in their supply chain. Because for the most part, the quality of the audits that our companies are doing for their Chinese factories are really weak. They’re really cursory audits that are unable to detect something as complicated as hidden subcontracting due to forced labor a lot of the times.

This is especially the case of Amazon, who doesn’t even do audits. Most of the time they say they strive to do audits, but they released very little information about which suppliers are actually auditing, and what do they find? When I was in China in early 2018, to do research for this book, I spent some time visiting the camps, talking to the guards to confirm the prisoners were manufacturing products and exporting it. 

I mean, I followed the trucks that left these camps to see what suppliers are you working with. And they were working with all kinds of exporters including an official Apple supplier. And these factories made all kinds of products from not only Apple products, but also these pet products and bike brakes. It was really a wide range of products. And when I looked at the customs records to see who was picking them up, it is a pretty long complicated list of middlemen that they go through before it ends up at a company like Amazon or Target, or many of them.

But it does have the name of their product, the name of the brand a lot of the times. And if you Google it, it’s coming up everywhere, it’s out there. Most of the time they are sold on Amazon, I don’t know if that particular truck I followed was sending products that eventually ended up on Amazon. But it just comes to show that a lot of the types of products that you’re finding on Amazon could have an origin in a Chinese labor camp. And they’re not really doing any kind of audits to verify the quality of those factories, and what their sourcing practices are. Maybe what we can do as consumers is to start asking companies to reveal more about their auditing practices, especially Amazon.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Oh, let me tell you that part of you following those trucks, that is just thrilling, saying like, “Wow, this woman is so brave doing in that in China.”

AMELIA PANG:  Anyway, each truck drove two to three hours and you’re just sitting on a highway following it, and really staring at a really slow truck. It wasn’t that thrilling in reality.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  How about you Alec?

ALEC MACGILLIS:  I think Amelia covered that question very well. And I think, one thing I would add just as a small note of hopefulness is that, this is not intended as a corporate plug, but just as a statement of reality about what’s happening in the market right now. There is a growing sort of option out there that is prospering in fact, that for small businesses that are wanting to sell their goods without going into online, sell online without going into the mall of Amazon and it’s Shopify. 

And I know only about what I’ve read in the business media, but it has become this whole other way for companies that have something they want to sell online, and need to be able to sell it online without wanting to just go into this massive empire, where you’re going to be paying these 15, 20, 30% commissions to this giant company. And that actually, I think, it’s possible you’re going to see more things like that, more as the giant gets ever bigger and scarier that you’re going to see more domestic small businesses here wanting to do something else, and realizing just how bad it is for them. Even without antitrust action, which is necessary, you might still start to see a bit of a sort of, some challenges here and there.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  And if I can interject, and Cynthia has a question and she says, “But what’s the difference between buying on Amazon and Walmart?” In a way none of them are known for being stellar businesses in the way they deal with…

ALEC MACGILLIS:  Absolutely not.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Customers or employees.

ALEC MACGILLIS:  They’re absolutely not. And Walmart famously had a hugely destructive effect on this country, in the years of its massive growth, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s hugely destructive impact on all these downtowns, and small towns all around the country. One major difference though, that has to be pointed out between these two companies, is that Walmart pays so much more in taxes. It’s because of its physical presence. It pays billions more in taxes per year than Amazon.

Amazon has basically grown, it was all about gaming the taxes. That’s sort of how it grows, avoiding sales taxes, having to charge sales taxes by being online, by putting its warehouses only in certain places to avoid having to pay taxes. And that’s been its driving part of its success. And so that I would just say, “I’m no fan of Walmart, it’s so destructive in so many ways, but it is a much bigger American taxpayer than Amazon.”

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  It is time for us to wrap things up, thanks to Alec and Amelia, and to everyone who is watching, please consider buying their future books from your local independent bookseller, or using the link provided. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thank you, Alec, Amelia.

ALEC MACGILLIS:  Thank you.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ:  Good having you here. 

ALEC MACGILLIS:  It’s great.

AMELIA PANG:  Thank you so much Camilo, you’ve been a great conversation partner. Appreciate everyone here tonight. Appreciate Alec, and yes, thank you so much to the Virginia Festival of the Book. Thank you for spreading the message. I really do think together we can all collectively do better as consumers.

ALEC MACGILLIS:  Yeah, such great questions and so glad to be paired with Amelia for this. And thanks to all of you for joining us tonight. It is a really tough subject, and I will admit the books, they can be pretty bracing reads both of them. But this is just, it is so, so, so important. There was a note put on, when my book went on sale yesterday, an independent bookstore here in Baltimore put several of the books by the cash register to promote them. And the bookstore owner wrote on them said, “Please read this book, this is our world.” And she’s right, and both these books are our world. So it’s so important that we reckon with it. Thank you.

CAMILO SÁNCHEZ: Thank you. 

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