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Marie Crawford Miller
Marie Crawford Miller

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Birkenstocks and the (other) Amazon

Despite an overwhelming amount of national popularity which only rose as a result of covid-19, Amazon has undeniable faults. They’re part of a wicked problem involving consumer culture and disposability. Why would people invest in handmade objects that inspire attachment and care (
Ezio Manzini
, 2006) if they can purchase similar-looking products for significantly less money? There are significant reasons, but in light of the increasing distance between the upper and lower classes in the US, along with convenience and so-called discount prices, the logic can be harder to sell than a pair of knock-off Birkenstocks.

The German shoe company pulled out completely from selling their products on Amazon in the US in early 2018 (Judge, 2017). The company had been quite vocal about its concerns regarding the sales of counterfeit versions of its product. They’ve been in business since the mid 1774, still make all of their sandals in Germany, and some shoes only travel as far as Portugal to be manufactured. The shoes aren’t cheap for multiple reasons. Among them are the quality construction, living wage paid to employees, durability, and natural materials (Berman, 2022).

Birkenstocks with price tag

In 1966, when Birkenstock sandals made their appearance in the US for the first time, the internet didn’t yet exist. Now, however, shoppers can flip through sandal options and compare and contrast without accessing information from a knowledgeable employee or knowing the rationale behind the cost for various lines of footwear. Subsequently, Amazon buyers are highly uninformed about what sets the originals apart from cheaper copies. Alternately, the fact that the middle class is shrinking in the US and the rift between those who ‘have’ and ‘have not,’ has led consumers to purchase cheaper copies regardless of the information they possess (Kochhar, 2018). This doesn’t mean these consumers are evil. The problem is wicked.

In February 2019, Birkenstock received a favorable hearing from the district court in Düsseldorf, in which it agreed that Amazon books variations of the spelling of “Birkenstock” as keywords in searches through Google AdWords (Judge, 2017). This means that shoppers could accidentally wind up looking at shoes on Amazon in the US without knowing they’re fakes. Not only would the consumer suffer, but when they would receive the inevitably inferior product the reputation of Birkenstock would be at stake. Birkenstock has said they will end the sale of its products on Amazon in Europe, as well, due to failure to proactively prevent the sale of counterfeit products (Judge, 2017).

Birkenstock, being an established company with financial stability and what might be called old-world values, can afford to make this move. What makes the situation especially troubling though, is that according to Amazon themselves, over 500,000 small businesses rely on them to move inventory (Huseman, 2021). While many may be grateful for the opportunity to extend the reach of their markets, others sell via the colossus because they have no other choice if they want to remain in business. And because they’re small they can’t afford to pull their products off the site if they see counterfeit activity happening. Neither can they afford to lose sales to cheaper vendors selling stolen designs made with lower quality materials and cheap labor, all of which enables sales at lower price points.

In the short term, prices for these goods may be lower than those of local businesses. In the long term, our behavior is costing us a great deal of money. Research suggests that when consumers shop online at vendors such as Amazon, they spend more rather than less than they otherwise would (Bardhi & Arnould, 2005). Buyers often use low prices as justification for purchasing items in excess of what they need, allowing for “splurge” purchases without the guilt they might otherwise associate with them (2005). Additionally, if every family in the US were to spend $10 a month at a local business rather than a large distributor or big box store, over $9.3 billion would be returned to the national economy (Shepherd, 2020).

However, because Amazon has so much economic power, it can undercut the cost of almost any small business on the street. This gives the corporate giant a radical kind of power over the goods to which the public has access. If they continue to succeed unchecked in their current form, it is conceivable that there will no longer be any shops on Main Street to save. Already, enough businesses have gone bankrupt that there is sometimes no choice but to purchase products from Amazon because there’s nowhere else to go.

This is what Ivan Illich calls a “Radical Monopoly” (Friedenberg, 1973). Unfortunately, as long as the current iteration of consumer culture prevails, the society we build with our dollars will be one that is less socially just, more environmentally damaging, and more expensive to mainstream America than most of us realize. In large part, we create the society in which we live by the ways we choose to spend our money. If we want to see change we must adjust our behavior and elect officials who will rewrite and enforce antitrust laws. Until then, the demand for cheap, disposable goods will continue to carry an inordinately high price tag.

— Marie Crawford Miller

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