Back in February, a group of Amazon’s tech workers were openly circulating the draft of a letter they planned to publish on the internet. The letter was pushing their employer, one of the largest tech companies in the world, to turn itself into an example on how to fight climate change.
They wanted the company to develop a plan to stop using fossil fuels. They also wanted it to stop going after customers in the oil and gas industries. Amazon Web Services has an entire unit dedicated to serving this market. This push by employees, who were publicly signing their name to the letter, was a politically gutsy move at Amazon, a company known for its fanatically pro-customer culture.
But they did, and one of the employees involved tells Business Insider that the group, and the nearly 7,700 employees who signed it, stand by that idea.
“Given the scale and urgency of the climate crises, we can’t be helping to extract and expand fossil fuel,” Rajit Iftikhar, a software developer for Amazon and one of the employees involved in this push, told Business Insider.
While Iftikhar acknowledges that oil and gas industry are also some of the biggest R&D investors in alternative, sustainable energy, he doesn’t think that outweighs their negative climate contributions.
“These are the companies who, for years, funded denialism and have actively perverted more action on climate change,” he said, referring to donations by oil companies and other efforts to call the impact of climate change into question.
“At the end of the day, Amazon has decided before not to do business with certain customers. This is why Amazon chooses not to sell guns,” Iftikhar said.
And they further asked that Amazon, which has come under fire for some of its labor practices, to agree not to penalize workers, particularly hourly workers, who missed work due to extreme weather — experts expect that as climate change worsens, environmental disasters like the California wildfires or floods in Bangladesh will only prove more disruptive and dangerous to human life.
Instead, the employees wanted the company to commit to doing everything in its considerable power to adopt the guidelines of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The IPCC has warned of the catastrophic consequences if global warming increasing by another 1.5 degrees Celsius and has developed a list of recommendations to prevent this. Among those recommendations: Stop using fossil fuels, and do it as quickly as possible.
A big promise from Amazon
The group of employees, who also own stock in the company, decided to take their issues straight to Amazon shareholders. They crafted a more modest shareholder proposal asking the company to create climate disaster plans and to publicly report on efforts to stop using fossil fuels.
Their shareholder proposal didn’t get the support of the board — and, as often happens in that situation, fails to pass.
But the open letter, with its bigger demands, resontated with many inside the company.
In fact, back in February, a couple of days after the letter began circulating internally, Amazon announced a new initiative called Shipment Zero. This is a project to offset the ecological impact that Amazon’s enormous shipping processes have on the environment, aiming for 50% of all of Amazon’s shipments to be 100% offset in a decade.
It also for the first time promised to release a report sometime later this year on Amazon’s company-wide carbon footprint and how it is doing on these initiatives.
The group thinks their efforts encouraged Amazon to make that announcement when it did.
“We think its very likely they announced Shipment Zero as a result of seeing how much energy there was from the employees behind the letter,” Iftikhar told us.
As part of their shareholder proposal process, the group of employees had two meetings with Amazon officials, involving both Amazon legal and Amazon’s Sustainability Team.
The company often meets with those shareholders working on putting forth proposals, especially if the shareholders have clout, and tries to negotiate something both sides can live with without the need for it to go any further.
In this case, Iftikhar recalls, the Amazon representatives asked if the employees were willing to withdraw their proposal because it announced adopted Shipment Zero.
The answer was no.
“It wasn’t antagonistic,” Iftikhar recalls. “But we did not see eye-to-eye on whether Amazon had not done enough.”
The employees also fired up a Twitter account and held a press conference after the shareholder’s meeting and have vowed to continue to lobbying their company.
What Amazon is doing
Despite the backing of nearly 8,000 employees, they haven’t yet heard another thing about the proposal from senior management, or from the Sustainability team. Nor has their boss, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, met with them or agreed to do so in the future, Iftikhar said.
As we previously reported, at the meeting, Bezos didn’t come on stage — even when they asked him to — to hear one of the employees introduce their shareholder proposal.
During the Q&A section, when 50 employees backing the proposal raised their hands, he did take two questions from among them. They weren’t happy with his answers, and felt that he dodged the question.
In his answer, Bezos explained why their request to become a completely zero-carbon company at the speed recommended by the latest climate science reports was a difficult problem to solve. (Watch a video of his full explanation below.) Bezos also listed several things that Amazon is doing to lessen its pollution footprint, and generally make itself greener — including the Shipment Zero plans, multiple wind farms built by Amazon, and the solar panels it has installed on some of its warehouses.
Other projects Amazon is doing, according to its Sustainability Team’s website, includes signing the Sustainable Fuel Buyers’ Principles, a pledge put forward by a group of fuel buyers pushing the transportation industry toward sustainable options.
In Europe, the company is also using contract service providers for a low-pollution fleet of 130 electric and natural gas vans and cars.
So Amazon hasn’t been completely oblivious to its own ecological impact, although you could argue that its efforts aren’t comprehensive.
130 vehicles is a mere drop in the bucket, given the number of Amazon delivery vehicles on the road.
There also seems to be a gap in accountability: although Amazon promised to publish information, it didn’t agree to send information to well-known watchdogs that track such things, like the Carbon Disclosure Project, a non-profit organization that collects annual data from other major companies including Google.
“Employees want to be proud to work for a sustainable company, and to get to net zero emission. Again, that’s why we need a company wide goal,” Iftikhar said. “For us, it’s an ongoing process. They can choose to adopt the resolution at anytime. A lot of employees are behind it. We are not going anywhere and will continue to push.”
Amazon would not comment on if the leadership team will meet again with the employees in the future. A spokesperson did give us a statement that listed many of the things Amazon is doing on sustainability, reiterating the company’s promise to share information on its company-wide carbon footprint.
Here’s Jeff Bezos answering Amazon employee questions at the annual shareholder’s meeting:
Here’s the company’s statement in full:
“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. Amazon’s sustainability team is using a science-based approach to develop data and strategies to ensure a rigorous approach to our sustainability work.
“We have launched several major and impactful programs and are working hard to integrate this approach fully across Amazon. Our dedication to ensuring that our customers understand how we are addressing environmental issues has been unwavering – we look forward to launching more work and sharing more this year.
“We have a long history of commitment to sustainability through innovative programs such as Frustration Free Packaging, Ship in Own Container, our n etwork of solar and wind farms, solar on our fulfillment center rooftops, investments in the circular economy with the Closed Loop Fund, and numerous other initiatives happening every day by teams across Amazon.
“In operations alone, we have 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% renewable energy.”