Amazon employees are using their influence as shareholders to push the company to take bolder action on climate change.
Since Tuesday, more than 5,000 employees have signed a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s board of directors, pressuring them to come up with a companywide climate plan that would lead Amazon to transition to 100 percent renewable energy.
They also want Amazon to stop doing work for the oil and gas industry and to stop donating to members of Congress who vote against legislation to curb carbon emissions.
“We believe this is a historic opportunity for Amazon to stand with employees and signal to the world that we’re ready to be a climate leader,” they wrote in a letter published Wednesday on Medium. Within 48 hours, thousands of employees had endorsed the petition — a sign that there’s strong support within the workforce for an idea that seemed unattainable just four months ago.
In November, about two dozen Amazon employees submitted shareholder proposals that would force the company to come up with a more aggressive plan to address climate change. It was the first time tech workers, whose compensation often includes stock, have used their leverage as shareholders to push the company to make changes. And their plan could be the most ambitious demand yet for a company to take responsibility for its role in the deepening climate crisis.
So far, Amazon doesn’t seem thrilled about the idea.
The movement started small
In late fall, more than two dozen employees filed a climate petition. Like all other shareholder proposals, the board of directors will vote on it at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting which will likely happen next month.
The group has been organizing, forming an unofficial coalition dubbed Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. The letter they sent Wednesday is part of a strategy to build pressure on Amazon to take their proposal seriously.
Amazon is already taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint. The company has invested in wind power and solar power, but employees say that’s not enough, particularly since the company’s business model is a key source of global carbon emissions.
The online retailer — one of the top five most valuable US companies — relies on diesel-guzzling delivery trucks to deliver billions of packages to customers each year. As Vox’s David Roberts points out, in 2016, transportation overtook power plants as the top producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the US for the first time since 1979.
Even before the rise of online shopping and residential deliveries, urban freight traffic, generated a disproportionate amount of emissions, although it represented a small proportion of overall traffic. These emissions include the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming as well as a range of other pollutants that have deleterious health impacts on communities.
In their letter, employees said Amazon’s current goal to slash delivery emissions in half by 2030, known as the Shipment Zero plan, doesn’t actually reduce the company’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Shipment Zero only commits to net carbon reductions, which allows us to continue to pollute; we recently ordered 20,000 diesel vans whose emissions will need to be offset with carbon credits. Offsets can entail forest management policies that displace Indigenous communities, and they do nothing to reduce our diesel pollution which disproportionately harms communities of color.
Employees want Amazon to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, not just for package shipping, but across the entire company and within the company’s entire supply chain.
Such a change would represent an enormous shift in company priorities. So it’s no surprise Amazon has been mostly silent on the specific proposals. A company representative told Vox that the company is already undertaking an ambitious plan to address climate change.
“Earlier this year, we announced that we will share our company-wide carbon footprint, along with related goals and programs. We also announced Shipment Zero, our vision to make all Amazon shipments net zero carbon, with 50% of all shipments net zero by 2030,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement to Vox, pointing out that Amazon has over 200 scientists, engineers, and product designers “dedicated exclusively to inventing new ways to leverage our scale for the good of customers and the planet. We have a long term commitment to powering our global infrastructure using 100 percent renewable energy.”
In the CEO’s annual letter to shareholders, released Thursday, Bezos mentioned the company’s expansion into physical retail stores, growing sales from third-party vendors, and the decision to raise wages for warehouse employees.
He made no mention of the employees’ letter or any of the company’s actions on climate change.
But Amazon executives won’t be able to ignore the issue for long. These employees are also shareholders, so Bezos and the board will have to vote on the proposal at their annual meeting. And it’s highly likely that employees will show up to continue the pressure campaign.
Below is the full text of the letter they sent, which outlines more ambitious goals to address climate change.
Jeff Bezos and Board of Directors:
We, the undersigned 5,237* Amazon employees, ask that you adopt the climate plan shareholder resolution and release a company-wide climate plan that incorporates the principles outlined in this letter.
Amazon has the resources and scale to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis. We believe this is a historic opportunity for Amazon to stand with employees and signal to the world that we’re ready to be a climate leader.
Climate change is an existential threat. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts that a warming of 2° Celsius, which we’re currently on track to surpass, will threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people and put thousands of species at risk of extinction. We’re already seeing devastating climate impacts: unprecedented flooding in India and Mozambique, dry water wells in Africa, coastal displacement in Asia, wildfires and floods in North America, and crop failure in Latin America. Vulnerable communities least responsible for the climate crisis are already paying the highest price.
Amazon’s leadership is urgently needed. We’re a company that understands the importance of thinking big, taking ownership of hard problems, and earning trust. These traits have made Amazon a top global innovator but have been missing from the company’s approach to climate change. For example:
- We haven’t disclosed a company-wide plan to reach zero carbon emissions within the timeline required by science. Our goal to reach 100% renewable energy does not have a date for completion. In addition, Shipment Zero does not commit to a decrease in emissions compared to current levels. Given Amazon’s rate of growth, reaching 50% net-zero shipments by 2030 could still be an increase in emissions compared to today.
- Shipment Zero only commits to net carbon reductions, which allows us to continue to pollute; we recently ordered 20,000 diesel vans whose emissions will need to be offset with carbon credits. Offsets can entail forest management policies that displace Indigenous communities, and they do nothing to reduce our diesel pollution which disproportionately harms communities of color.
- We have an AWS for Oil & Gas initiative devoted to helping fossil fuel companies accelerate and expand oil and gas extraction. To avert catastrophic warming, the science is clear: we must keep fossil fuels in the ground.
- We donate to climate-delaying legislators: While Amazon has joined a variety of sustainability organizations like the Corporate Eco Forum and the American Council on Renewable Energy, we donated to 68 members of congress in 2018 who voted against climate legislation 100% of the time [20,21].
- Our sustainability goals lack context. For example, we’ve set a goal of at least 50 solar installations in warehouse facilities by 2020. This represents only 6% of buildings in our global fulfillment network and a fraction of our overall carbon footprint.
Our customer obsession requires climate obsession. This necessitates an immediate company-wide plan addressing climate change that demonstrates the following principles:
- Public goals and timelines consistent with science and the IPCC report. Emissions must be cut in half by 2030 from 2010 levels and reach zero by 2050. Goals must span all organizations and businesses, and cover the full supply chain.
- A complete transition away from fossil fuels rather than relying on carbon offsets.
- Prioritization of climate impact when making business decisions, including ending all custom solutions specifically designed for oil and gas extraction and exploration.
- Reduction of harm to the most vulnerable communities first. The pollution we generate is not equally distributed, and climate impact will be felt first and hardest by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, particularly in the Global South. We must prioritize our pollution reduction in these communities.
- Advocacy for local, federal, and international policies that reduce overall carbon emissions in line with the IPCC report and withholding of support from policy makers who delay action on climate change.
- Fair treatment of all employees during climate disruptions and extreme weather events. Unsafe or inaccessible workplaces should not be a reason to withhold pay, terminate, or otherwise penalize employees — including hourly and contract workers.
In our mission to become “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” we believe our climate impact must be a top consideration in everything we do. We have the power to shift entire industries, inspire global action on climate, and lead on the issue of our lifetimes. We ask that you, as leaders responsible for our strategic direction, adopt the climate plan resolution and release a company-wide plan that incorporates the six principles above.
5,237* Amazon employees
5:13 pm: Updated with statement from Amazon
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