Amazon is one of the most valuable, and most talked about companies in the world. There is plenty of buzz about what the company, built for online-ordering, is doing for the world, from an environmental, social and corporate governance standpoint.
With a provocative ad campaign, Amazon is presenting itself as an environmental leader. You’ve seen the commercials about their new fleet of electric vehicles. RJ Scaringe, CEO of Rivian Automotive, a company that manufactures electric vehicles, is behind Amazon’s pledge to put 100,000 electric delivery vans on the road. Amazon will save millions of tons of carbon per year. That’s a mighty contribution that will improve the company’s impact on our polluted atmosphere, and it makes Jeff Bezos sound like he’s making the world a better place. It is a step forward, but Bezos can do a lot more. His own personal fortune is the equivalent of 1% of the US gross domestic product.
It’s time to see past those ads and uncover the full story on Amazon’s environmental impact.
Layers of Accountability
The truth is, when you’re dealing with a company the size of Amazon, the conversation about ESG impact is layered and complicated. Big corporations have the power to manipulate their ESG rankings with marketing, controlled messaging, carbon buybacks, expensive programs that take on certain issues that allow them to check off the boxes on the list of what makes a company “green.” Reporting is the foundation of ESG data, and at UnifyImpact we will always be fans of big declarations and ESG goal setting. But goals are just the beginning. Our job is to take it a step further and add layers of accountability to what companies say about themselves.
To get back to our spotlight: Amazon has experienced a surge in online sales during the COVID19 pandemic as we’ve all turned to online shopping when we’re not on Zoom, sending the company’s market capitalization above our roofs into the stratosphere. It’s now valued at $1.7 Trillion. According to Market Watch, Amazon blew past Wall Street’s expectations, reporting $5.2 Billion in net profit, and Bezos is promising it will all go to COVID-related initiatives. In September, CEO Jeff Bezos announced the company’s commitment to fighting climate change with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040. They also have a public page displaying their sustainability efforts. The fact that the company is marketing it’s green efforts is definitely a sign that they know their customers care about environmental impact.
A number of Amazon employees who advocate for Climate Change don’t believe that’s enough and have said so, collectively, check out the Medium article about Amazon Employees for Climate Justice or follow the collective on Twitter @AMZNforClimate.
The Green Lens
Amazon will be the first to let you know through their public relations, announcements and initiatives, that they are working hard to reduce carbon and invest in “A Better World.” To live up to these lofty promises, Amazon has partnered with leading sustainability organizations and has thousands of employees across the company working on sustainability initiatives.
- Net carbon zero by 2040
- 100% renewable energy by 2025
- 100,000 EVs (largest order ever for RJ Scaringe)
- Partnering with external certifications, including governmental agencies, nonprofits and independent laboratories to help distinguish more sustainable products
Amazon has even created their own certification, Compact by Design, to identify products that have a more efficient design and to remove excess air and water, products require less packaging and become more efficient to ship.
They’ve created climate-related initiatives, leading with a Climate Pledge Fund, which will invest $2B to support development technologies and services that reduce carbon emissions and help “preserve the planet”. They also have a Right Now Climate Fund, investing $100M in reforestation projects and climate mitigation solutions. They have had a Head of Sustainability since 2014. And they have created the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, the first net carbon zero arena in the world.
What They Don’t Mention
Here’s the real issue with what we’re facing with climate action and corporate environmental promises: In 2019, Amazon’s carbon footprint grew 15%. In fact, Amazon is the largest carbon emitter among tech companies. There’s a reason for this. Amazon outsources delivery services to different providers, such as UPS, or the Postal Service. Freight vehicles, specifically medium to heavy duty trucks are responsible for nearly one quarter of the carbon footprint in the transportation industry, which happens to be to be the top producer of US carbon dioxide emissions.
Have you wondered what happens when you go onto Amazon Prime to order your online Whole Foods order or Zoom chillax wardrobe? Are you ready for who leaves the lowest Amazon carbon footprint? Here’s an interesting fact from the results of a study by Dimitri Weideli of the MIT Center of Transportation and Logistics.
The study looked at three kinds of shoppers. Some of us, or our parents, are traditional, local shoppers. Despite COVID, we’re filling parking lots outside of stores. In person shopping is good in that it keeps people employed, but involves travel and COVID risk. Then, there are those of us who order online through Amazon, regular delivery. And then there are those who take advantage of Amazon’s next day delivery. The third category of consumer includes all of us who rushed to get presents delivered in time for the holidays. Weideli wanted to know: who leaves the least carbon footprint?
As it turns out, it’s not the local shopper, who is driving to the stores and parking a car in a parking lot. And it’s definitely not the shopper that opts for faster delivery. Amazon’s next day service has almost tripled the impact of freight transportation. The lowest carbon footprint actually belongs to the Amazon shoppers who simply order online and wait until our packages arrive. It’s like a car pool. If you allow what you buy to be grouped with other items being delivered on a similar route, you are not just making the delivery process easier for the company, but limiting the amount of gas needed to deliver your item.
This of course is all about delivery. The product being delivered also determines its carbon footprint. A laptop requires more protective packaging than a t-shirt and therefore generates more carbon emissions.
What’s happening up in the Cloud?
AWS (Amazon’s cloud service for web hosting) does a lot of business with oil and gas companies, searching for new oil. Hmmm. Profit and business opportunities outweighing sustainability? That looks villainous when we talk about climate.
But Climate Change, and its effects, bring attention to resource efficiency as a key part of sustainability responsibility. Amazon wants to be seen as a responsible corporate citizen, and commissioned 451 Research to create a white paper, which showed that AWS’s infrastructure is 36 times more energy efficient than the average of the 300 company data centers surveyed. When companies move their data from in-house servers to the cloud, and the reduced associated carbon emissions are factored in, AWS performs with an 88% lower footprint.
But when Amazon pledges to completely decarbonize their data centers, they and Google and Microsoft, as well, rely heavily on a renewable energy credit (REC). which is basically a token that represents a utility’s green energy generation. Amazon can promise to become 100 percent renewable, but it’s still being connected to grids that use fossil fuels, with only a fraction coming from wind farms and solar farms. Amazon offsets its carbon emissions with RECs.
As you’ll come to know with all companies on the S&P, Russell 2000, even the 20,000 companies that we show on UnifyImpact, there is going to be the good, the bad and the ugly sustainable behavior. What’s critical is how transparent they are to you, as shareholders, or consumers.
Amazon is not treating its employees as well as they might have you see.
The company is notorious for poor treatment of workers and work conditions and they have had many class action lawsuits filed against them.
During COVID, many Amazon employees have spoken out against unsafe working conditions. A job at Amazon mandates long hours, unrealistic quotas and lower wages. The company raised wages to $15/hr following the most recent backlash.
The list of practices that won’t give Amazon a positive Social score includes an antitrust lawsuit regarding monopolistic practices, harming or eliminating small businesses, which are already impacted by Covid. Amazon has taken actions to make it harder for small vendors to ship products themselves, forcing them to pay Amazon additional fees.
If you own Amazon stock, as a shareholder, Amazon has blocked requests, in the past, for outside evaluation on certain matters, which means they are not being fully transparent about the full scale about their emissions, despite large PR pushes in regards to their sustainability initiatives.
Regardless of opinion, Amazon’s prevalence makes their actions and initiatives in matters regarding ESG important. With the company worth $1.7T and trading at over $3K/share, it seems like their power is only growing and here to stay. Amazon publicly reports indices in accordance with SASB (Sustainable Accounting Standards Board and other reporting frameworks. They have plenty to say about their own sustainability performance. But reporting is just the first step.
Anyone who believes their investments – or purchases- should be aligned with their values should hold Amazon accountable to their plans and pledges. Let’s all continue to push for more transparency, accountability and disclosure.
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