Finance Consumer Amazon or Harvey Norman – which is better (or worse) to buy from?

Amazon or Harvey Norman – which is better (or worse) to buy from?

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The Twitterverse was recently asked “Morally, is it worse to get something from Amazon, or Harvey Norman?”

The question solicited many responses: some described the character of the CEOs, others mentioned the wages and taxes paid (or not paid) by each company, while yet other Twitter users cited the labour conditions experienced by workers at these companies.

These factors may or may not influence whether you buy from Harvey Norman or Amazon, but they aren’t issues that help to answer the moral question. As a matter of fact, the question whether to buy from Harvey Norman or Amazon arguably isn’t a moral one at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important that people ask themselves questions such as these, but this specific question is a not a moral one: rather, it is an ethical question, the answer to which is informed by your values.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, let me explain.

Moral questions relate to matters of “good or bad” and “right and wrong” and concern big and widely debated questions. For example, should the state be able to put individuals to death for crimes they committed, or should women be able to terminate their pregnancies.

Heavy stuff, I know.

The question whether to buy from Harvey Norman or Amazon obviously isn’t on par with those examples. However, that does not mean that there isn’t a kernel of moral relevance in the question, yet for it to be a truly moral question it would have to be rephrased.

For example, the moral question could be whether or not we, as a society, should engage in mass consumerism despite its detrimental effects on the environment. By rephrasing the question, it now addresses a broader societal conundrum and the question has therefore gained moral relevance: it is no longer simply about deciding from what store to buy.

That is perhaps the key difference between moral questions and ethical ones, the former questions relate to abstract debates at a high conceptual level, while the latter questions are concerned with what course of action should be taken in a particular situation.

In the context of contentious issues such as the death penalty or abortion, ethical questions are not concerned with whether or not these practices are good or bad or right or wrong in and of themselves, but rather with what course of action to take in a given scenario.

In other words, ethical questions are surrounded with the real-world context that moral questions lack: it is about making decisions in circumstances that – for example – include a state-led execution or an abortion, and making decisions about how to proceed (or not).

Let’s get back to the Harvey Norman versus Amazon question.

The difficulty in deciding whether to buy from one retailer or the other is clearly situational, and the question is therefore an ethical one. We do not know the exact moral backdrop in which the question is being posed, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that the two retailers are being weighed in the context of mass consumerism and its effect on the world.

The ethical question then becomes: in the context of mass consumerism, is it more ethical to make a purchase at Harvey Norman or at Amazon? Considering that question, it clearly depends on what you are planning to buy.

If you want to replace your 55-inch TV with a new 65-inch TV, even though your old TV is still in perfect working order, then given the moral question about mass consumerism, the most ethical course of action would be not to buy a new TV at all.

Then again, you might have to replace an essential appliance that is beyond repair, such as a washing machine or a fridge. The purchase itself is then more justifiable, even against the backdrop of mass consumerism, and the question becomes where to make your purchase.

In making an ethical decision about whether to buy, you will consider your values: what is important to you will determine your course of action.

For example, in their responses the Twitterati mentioned the CEOs Jeff Bezos and Gerry Harvey. Both are outspoken and contentious figures and the (non-)alignment of their values with your own might be a determining factor in deciding where you will shop.

Alternatively, you may be more concerned with the (low) wages that workers get paid at these companies, the working conditions they endure, the taxes that these companies (do not) pay, whether to buy “Australian” and so forth. Your attitudes towards these issues will help you reach an informed and ethical decision.

While it is important to contemplate these decisions, ethical decision-making in itself is only one part of the puzzle. You may decide to buy at Harvey Norman, Amazon, somewhere else, or abandon the idea of purchasing altogether – yet the moral question remains.

Sure, if enough people stop buying stuff from Amazon or Harvey Norman, these companies might change their practices, and ultimately – perhaps when enough people decide not to buy non-essential items anymore, we may pivot towards sustainable ways of consumption.

Yet, forming a critical mass of ethical consumers that is capable of bringing about such radical change is a daunting notion. The idea of “voting with your wallet” is appealing, but this notion also atomises society and reduces us all to individual consumers.

During my childhood, the Dutch government ran a campaign to raise awareness about environmental degradation, the slogan translates to “a better environment starts with you”.

It makes sense in a way, to say that we can make a difference by changing the small things that we all do, but in doing so the onus to change is placed on individuals.

Making ethical decisions is important, but we should not be deceived into thinking that this is where the buck stops. Debating societal issues and coming up with answers to tough moral questions is equally – if not more so – the domain of our government and institutions.

So, before you beat yourself up too badly about the decision whether or not to buy something at Harvey Norman or Amazon, consider that while you can attempt to make an informed and ethical purchase, the responsibility to initiate and maintain a broader moral debate about mass consumerism and its effect on the environment doesn’t just lie with you.

Dr Martijn Boersma is a senior lecturer in the Management Department at the University of Technology Sydney Business School and author of the book Addressing Modern Slavery