Impact Series

With a robust nudge from staff, can Amazon lastly turn out to be a frontrunner on local weather change?

Amazon user experience designer Emily Cunningham speaks at a rally outside of the company’s shareholding meeting in May 2019. Employees supporting a resolution calling on Amazon to take more aggressive action on climate change wore white to the protest and meeting. The workers also formed a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. (Amazon Employees for Climate Justice Photo)

Amazon revels in its reputation for taking bold, unexpected action, for being visionary in industries such as cloud computing and online retail sales. Its venerated Leadership Principles celebrate ambition, big ideas, and contrary thinking.

But when it comes to the climate crisis — one of the biggest threats ever faced by humanity, according to some global leaders — Amazon has been a member of the supporting cast, not star of the show. Now its own employees are calling Amazon out of the wings, trying to draw the 25-year-old tech behemoth to center stage for the fight against global warming. Thousands of workers signed an open letter to Amazon’s leaders asking for climate action and employees called for a climate-focused resolution at the company’s annual shareholding meeting in May.

Amazon seems to be responding.

In February, the company promised to share information on its carbon footprint by the end of this year, though it’s employing its own methodology in lieu of widely used tools for greenhouse gas calculations. It has pledged to power its infrastructure with 100 percent clean energy, and ensure that half of its retail deliveries are carbon neutral by 2030.

However, essential details on these initiatives are still TBD, and Amazon’s own ambitions aren’t making the challenge any easier. The company recently announced plans to cut shipping times in half from two- to one-day delivery for Prime members, making cuts to fossil fuel use likely more difficult.

“Playing a significant role in helping to reduce the sources of human-induced climate change is an important commitment for Amazon,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to GeekWire — citing progress such as eliminating 244,000 tons of packaging materials, avoiding 500 million shipping boxes, in addition to work on electric vehicles, aviation biofuels and renewable energy.

“We are on a path to becoming the most sustainable retailer and cloud provider in the world,” the spokesperson said.

In June 2018, Amazon announced a new program to have tens of thousands of drivers delivering packages in Prime-branded uniforms and vans through independent delivery companies. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Amazon has some catching up to do, with Microsoft and Google further ahead in meeting clean energy goals and transparency in their eco-efforts. Delivery companies UPS and FedEx, which Amazon partners with and competes against, have also been working to reduce emissions for years. Microsoft, Google and UPS last year all received “A” grades from the CDP, an international organization helping corporations and governments track and report their environmental impacts. Amazon got an “F” for not disclosing its environmental information.

Climate experts say it’s about time that Amazon stepped up on the issue, as scientists issue a steady beat of dire warnings about floods, wildfires, extreme storms, droughts and other climate-caused catastrophes. Many are eager to see how aggressively the Seattle-based corporation will pursue its emissions goals.

“It doesn’t surprise me it’s taken this long because they have a very complicated business. What is surprising is that they had to be pressed by their employees,” said Paula DiPerna, special advisor to the CDP.

“Most visionary companies that aspire to be leaders in the world would be doing this already automatically,” she said.

Amazon has taken some earlier steps toward eco-friendly practices:

  • In 2008, Amazon announced Frustration-Free Packaging to reduce packaging and use recyclable materials in deliveries.
  • In 2014, it pledged to one day achieve 100 percent renewable power for its global infrastructure, and the following year said its AWS data centers were at 25 percent green.
  • In 2016, its first wind farm was up and running; AWS now has 12 wind and solar-power farms internationally operating or in the works.
  • Last year, AWS reported it had reached 50 percent renewable energy.

There are many ways to make the business case for tackling carbon issues. Investing in renewable energy locks in power prices. Carbon emissions pose potential financial risks if and when emitters are held accountable. And it’s good PR for customers, investors and employees.

Cloud and e-commerce are about the future — and so is climate change, said Aseem Prakash, a University of Washington professor and founding director the UW’s Center for Environmental Politics. “You need to be consistent in your messaging that you’re futuristic. If you are viewed as a company ahead of the curve, people are willing to gamble on you.”

But Amazon’s sustainability image has hit some snags.

An April feature in Gizmodo quoted Amazon leadership publicly promoting its partnerships with oil-and-gas giants who can use AWS to boost fossil fuel exploration and other projects (Microsoft and Google are also pushing cloud and AI to support fossil fuel extraction). A Greenpeace investigation in February alleged that Amazon’s major AWS operations in Virginia use only 12 percent clean power. Waste reduction experts have criticized Amazon’s adoption of bubble envelopes that are difficult to recycle.

Autonomous trucks could help Amazon make faster deliveries. (Amazon Photo)

And now thousands of Amazon’s own workers, apparently underwhelmed by the company’s eco-actions, are holding their employer to account in a manner that has impressed climate advocates.

“The employees at Amazon are saying they’re doing the work, producing the products and services, and they want to use their talents to help solve the climate crisis and not worsen it,” said Rebecca Deutsch, a volunteer with the climate-focused nonprofit Seattle 350. “They have an important role to play in pressuring the leadership.

“I’ve been really inspired by their bravery and courage and conviction,” she said.

Thousands of Amazonians take a stand

When Emily Claire Palmer received an email from fellow Amazon employees about a movement to publicly lobby her employer to fight climate change, she didn’t hesitate.

“It really resonated with me on a deep level,” said Palmer, a senior product manager at Amazon. “Like many other Amazonians, I had been searching for a way to take action on climate change in my own life and in my work.”

So she signed an open letter in April addressed to Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos and the Amazon board of directors. The missive calls out the shortcomings of the company’s climate-related measures and asks for specific steps to reduce emissions.

Nearly 8,000 employees have signed on.

“They took extraordinary risk to put themselves out there,” said Sue Reid, vice president of climate and energy for Boston-based Ceres, a nonprofit that promotes corporate environmental sustainability. “It’s super striking. I haven’t seen that elsewhere in a visible way on climate.”

For Palmer, the move seemed perfectly aligned with Amazon’s culture and professed values. “It’s very much about speaking the truth, looking at the data and dissenting,” she said. “One of our principals is to disagree, and speaking the truth and doing the right thing. I felt very much in the right on this.”

In addition to the letter, a group of current and former employees also co-filed a shareholder resolution at the end of 2018 calling on Amazon to create a climate plan.

350 Seattle, an organization that worked with the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group that proposed a shareholder resolution calling on the company to present a comprehensive climate change plan, protest outside the tech giant’s annual meeting in May 2019. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon officials have responded to their employees’ actions.

  • Amazon leadership met twice with the co-filers of the shareholder resolution.
  • Days after the letter began taking off among employees in mid February, Amazon announced its Shipment Zero initiative, setting goals for no net emissions for retail sales and pledging to disclose its carbon footprint.
  • Amazon’s investor relations team asked co-filers to withdraw their resolution following Shipment Zero; when they declined, the board, which Bezos leads, recommended that shareholders reject the resolution.

Despite the opposition, at May’s shareholder meeting the climate resolution managed to garner 31 percent of the vote (if Bezos’ share of the vote is pulled out, it was 41 percent approval). During the meeting’s Q&A portion, one of the employees asked Bezos if he would support initiatives to address climate change.

“That’s a very important issue,” Bezos responded. “It’s hard to find an issue that is more important than climate change. … It’s also, as everyone knows, a very difficult problem.”

He cited his company’s wind, solar and other projects as examples of their response. “There are a lot of initiatives here underway, and we’re not done,” Bezos said. “We’ll think of more, we’re very inventive.”

Small steps or major actions

While Amazon has committed to taking steps on climate, huge questions remain.

  • How quickly does the company plan to get to 100 renewable power for AWS and its other operations — there’s no set goal.
  • When it vows to reach net zero emissions for 50 percent of its retail operations, how much of that will be achieved using clean power such as electric vehicles, and how much will be covered by paying for carbon offsets that can include investments in projects including forest conservation and support for renewable energy? Experts say the offsets are less effective than actual carbon reductions.
  • What can Amazon do about the fact that its retail business is built on what many see as unsustainable consumption habits?

“They can do small steps, symbolic steps, or they can do major actions,” said the UW’s Prakash.

With so little detail, it’s anyone’s guess which way the company will go.

Experts agree that Amazon’s easiest moves are the ones it’s already taking: constructing wind and solar farms to power its energy-hungry cloud computing centers. The company reports that six solar farms and six wind farms are operating or under development for fueling AWS, producing enough energy to power the equivalent of 262,000 American homes.

Amazon boxes full of STEM toys were gives to kids at a “Go Gold” childhood cancer awareness event in Seattle in 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Since 2017, Amazon has also been installing solar panels on fulfillment centers that pack and ship retail orders; the company set a goal of outfitting 50 fulfillment centers by next year, but it’s unclear how close it is to reaching that mark. It operates hundreds of fulfillment centers and delivery stations worldwide. Update, July 25: Amazon announced that it completed its 2017 goal to install 50 solar rooftops systems 18 months early.

The bigger hurdle will be curbing the planet-warming pollution from Amazon’s e-commerce side.

The company relies on ships, planes, trains, trucks and cars that chug fossil fuels to transport goods from suppliers to its warehouses to customers. The company works with carriers such as UPS and FedEx, but in recent years has been building its own delivery infrastructure. It’s investing in cargo planes, and is on track for amassing a fleet of 70 planes by 2021. Nearly two years ago, Amazon announced it had ordered 20,000 vans for people who want to start their own businesses delivering for Amazon.

When it comes to ships and planes in particular, “there’s some real technological challenges for decarbonization,” said Reid, of Ceres. But if Amazon started demanding electric trucks and vans for its deliveries, that could move the market, experts said. Amazon has shown a sudden interest in autonomous and electric vehicles, given its recent investments in Rivian and Aurora.

Bezos and Amazon repeatedly promote online shopping as more efficient than purchases made in person, but experts say the data to back those claims are lacking. Certainly people sometimes take wasteful drives to far-flung stores to buy single items. But a steady stream of one-day deliveries of small orders would be less efficient than shoppers who make infrequent trips to fully stock cupboards and closets.

Amazon employees wore white to the Seattle shareholding meeting in May 2019, a show of solidarity in support for a resolution calling on Amazon to do more to fight climate change. (Amazon Employees for Climate Justice Photo)

“The idea that we can continue ordering things and having them delivered over night… is unsustainable and incompatible with addressing climate change,” said DiPerna of the CDP. “In the end, we all have to look at the lifestyle model that is represented by Amazon.”

‘I’ve never been more encouraged’

While the public waits for Amazon to share its footprint and perhaps reveal some details about its climate initiatives, Palmer remains hopeful.

“I’ve never been more encouraged or more excited about where things are headed,” said the Amazon manager. Even though the shareholder resolution this spring didn’t pass, it and the letter made clear what she and her colleagues want to see.

“We really feel like we won because we’ve really started a big movement within Amazon,” she said. “It’s really up to the employees and customers to continue to put pressure on Amazon to make sure it’s as comprehensive and far reaching as we want it to be.”

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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