Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America

By Alec MacGillis/Reviewed by Chris Wendel

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; March 2021; 402 pages

In a nutshell: A scathing throwdown of the behemoth company Amazon, including profiles of the people and communities the company impacts.

Who’s it for? General audiences and readers.

It was announced recently that Amazon’s Prime membership subscribers exceeded 200 million, an increase of 50 million since the beginning of 2020.

For the uninitiated, Prime members pay an annual subscription fee to enjoy Amazon’s premium services such as expedited shipping, streaming video, music and e-books. Amazon’s allure and convenience, along with the recent pandemic, have fueled the company’s popularity and profitability.

This rampant growth has also drawn attention to Amazon’s labor and business practices.

The recently released book “Fulfillment” follows the people, places and pain that Amazon leaves in its wake. Written by veteran journalist Alec MacGillis, “Fulfillment” takes the long view of Amazon’s evolution.

The well-constructed book moves across the U.S., weaving together first-hand stories that begin with the company’s humble beginnings to 2021. Amazon’s accumulated network of distribution hubs, enormous data centers and corporate facilities are located in a way that creates a game of winners and losers, mirroring the redistribution of wealth in America over the past 50 years.

MacGillis describes neighborhoods in Seattle that, prior to Amazon, encompassed significant racial and cultural diversity. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos chose to locate in Seattle because of its tax advantages and available labor pool from the nearby University of Washington. Over time, Amazon’s success spurred upscale office and residential development, displacing a historic black neighborhood.

Near Baltimore, MacGillis follows the path of Bill Bodani, a man working at a new Amazon warehouse. The facility is located on the Sparrows Point site that previously housed a sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant. Bodani worked at that Bethlehem Steel plant until the early 2000s when an injury forced him to retire (prior to foreign competition forcing the plant to close). At 69, Bodani makes an encore performance, working for Amazon as a forklift driver, earning 50% less than he did 20 years ago.

The book also focuses on Bezos himself. Washington, D.C. becomes the focus of his efforts with the purchase of the Washington Post newspaper, masking in a way his real motive, which is to maintain a stronghold on D.C. lobbyists and government contractors that infiltrate the nation’s capital.

Demonstrating his persistent winner-take-all attitude, the book gives a vivid description of Bezos purchasing what is considered the largest and most lavish mansion in town. It’s no surprise that after a nationwide contest of sorts to find a location for it second headquarters, Amazon chose the Washington, D.C. metro area, spurning dozens of cities in less influential regions.

MacGillis lays out countless examples of Amazon’s aggressive reach, building a strong indictment against the company. This includes examples of warehouse workers that can barely take bathroom breaks, dangerous working conditions, dodging taxes whenever possible and Amazon neglecting the communities in which it locates.

Even with the thousands of jobs Amazon creates, MacGillis makes it difficult to be sympathetic toward the company. There is little doubt that Amazon deftly adapted to economic opportunities that it saw coming, but it’s also evident that Bezos and Amazon are extremely opportunistic. This is the crux of the Amazon argument of capitalism versus corporate responsibility.

Today, Amazon’s customer base includes 60% of American households, which after reading “Fulfillment” raises some questions: If not Amazon, would some other company have come along with a similar online-everything type of store? Is Amazon playing by or skirting the rules? When will those who routinely purchase Amazon products reevaluate their shopping choices?

Hypothetical questions aside, “Fulfillment” presents a mesmerizing tale that reveals the unfortunate gap between America’s haves and have nots. With that in mind, “Fulfillment” might be enjoyed more when purchased from your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.