The Future of Food looks a lot like Amazon: But is it the Future We Want?

Carly Livingstone

Amazon is adding a lot of options to our grocery shopping experience, and in ways that might make us want to think before we click. In Canada, I may soon be able to order fresh, organic produce from Whole Foods Market online through Amazon and, with my Prime membership, have it delivered in under two hours. I will be able to stand in my kitchen and tell Alexa to order more eggs and, again, have them delivered in time for breakfast. Already, if I don’t feel like talking to Alexa, I can simply hit the Amazon “Dash” button on my fridge to place my bi-weekly coffee order and, if I’m feeling adventurous, I can walk into my local Whole Foods Market and collect my Prime membership rewards points at checkout (which, I may not have to do much longer thanks to soon-to-come “no check-out” grocery stores).

For anyone thinking “wow that’s great,” I’m with you. We are increasingly busy. As a (proud) member of the millennial generation, I balance a fulltime job and fulltime studies, with a rising cost of living that has me biting my fingernails each month.

But, at the same time that I need convenience and affordability, I also feel a growing responsibility to purchase food “ethically”. For me, that means food produced in an environmentally friendly way, by people who were treated fairly and paid a living wage. Oh, and I’d also like it to be locally sourced/produced. The catch? This food is, more often than not, more expensive and sometimes takes more effort to locate.

Enter Amazon: like a savior for procrastinators and time/money strapped people everywhere, Amazon has expanded its business reach to serve all of our grocery needs, focusing on organic and “niche” food products delivered cheaper and faster. And clearly, we like it. Already, Amazon dominates online grocery sales. By 2017, it held 18 percent of the $800 billion U.S. grocery market, a market share double that of any other retailer (Walmart comes in second with roughly half of Amazon’s share). Predictions by eMarketer suggest that by 2019, Amazon will reach close to 30 percent of the share of U.S. e-commerce food and beverage sales, making it Amazon’s fastest growing business.

Image from: https://www.thestreet.com/video/14184200/amazon-s-wholefoods-deal-lifts-u-k-grocery-sector.html

But should the world’s largest tech company’s growing dominance in the grocery business worry us? I am of the “yes” opinion. Why? Because as Amazon continues to give us what we want (ethical, organic, local) and need (cheap, convenient), it makes itself the obvious choice for our shopping needs. And when Amazon is the obvious choice, the space for competition narrows, with consequences that aren’t yet entirely visible.

It is likely, for example, that the local grocery store down the street and even our larger, more traditional retailers, won’t have the logistics platforms or the technological capabilities in place to deliver fresh food in under two hours (without a hefty price tag attached), or give you the option of re-ordering your groceries by telling your smart-home system. The massive scale that Amazon operates at also lets it discount traditionally more expensive, high-demand organic foods by combining grocery services with its existing Prime membership program. But the local Herb & Spice in Ottawa, which sources from organic farmers in the local area, isn’t going to be able to give us those same discounts. Probably not even close. Amazon’s success relies on its ability to shape what we demand, and it is giving us expectations that smaller, locally-based grocers and larger, more traditional supermarkets, simply won’t be able to accommodate.

Eliminating the competition for our wallets, however, also shapes the role we are able (or not able) to play as citizens and consumers in the food system. It forces us to consider whether we are simply self-interested consumers seeking convenience, or active participants with a role to play in creating a food system that acts in the interests of all people (from the farmers who grow the food to the citizens that eat the food), and the environment. Amazon is strategically working to fulfill this more “ethical” side of consumerism by prioritizing organic food offerings, but it is, ultimately, a global corporation. One driven by growth and accountable to its shareholders, where citizens are viewed as customers and where the well-being of people and the environment are secondary to corporate interests.

Creating a people-centered food system where corporate interests take a backseat is not impossible. It does require, however, that we exercise our democratic right to participate in shaping our food system and what it offers us. But as Amazon’s market dominance grows, the less opportunity there will be to promote alternatives. A good start, though, is thinking before we click; and we may need to start doing that thinking yesterday.

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