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Message Received? Amazon Employees Bring Climate Change Activism Inside

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
New Activism
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Last week, a group of Amazon employees circulated an unprecedented open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, demanding that the company do a better job of addressing climate change. Within a matter of days, the letter attracted 6,000 signatures and the numbers continue to climb.

If the letter touches a raw nerve at Amazon, it should. In the context of global competition for top talent, foot-dragging on climate change is all but certain to turn off the next generation of innovators and creative thinkers.

The Amazon letter and climate change

The Amazon open letter reflects how today's employees are assimilating the fundamental principles of corporate social responsibility and calling on their employers to abide by them.

That connection is especially strong when employees are stockholders. The letter published in support of a shareholder resolution on climate change is included on page 29 of Amazon’s most recent proxy statement, which was released last Thursday.

The letter also reflects a growing sense that a randomized approach to renewable energy goals is ineffective and insufficient. For example, the letter draws attention to the possibility that Amazon’s carbon emissions could actually increase by 2030 as the company grows.

Specifically, it describes Amazon’s “Shipment Zero” plan as a license to pollute, because it enabled Amazon to use carbon offsets for the recent purchase of 20,000 diesel-powered vans.

The letter points out serious deficiencies in those offsets, from a broad corporate social responsibility perspective:

“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.”

Two other areas of major concern include Amazon Web Services’ role in accelerating oil and gas extraction, and Amazon’s political donations during the 2018 election cycle—which went to dozens of members of the U.S. Congress who voted against climate action “100 percent of the time.”

Gender diversity and climate change

The Amazon climate change letter also reflects the nexus of gender diversity and climate advocacy.

Although some of the research is not definitive, surveys show that women are more likely to be concerned about climate change than men. Gender diversity—or rather, lack thereof—may also be at work as fossil energy companies face significant recruiting challenges among the millennial workforce.

That concern is beginning to surface in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) recently convened the Senate’s first hearing on climate change in six years, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14) is the leading force behind the Green New Deal.

In that context, it is no surprise that a female Amazon employee, Rebecca Sheppard, was part of the collaborative effort that launched the letter. Gizmodo interviewed Ms. Sheppard at length last week and quickly teased out two key factors that motivated her to act.

One was a keen awareness of the power of corporations to propel transformative changes. “I believe that if anyone can figure out a way to take a stagnant industry like aviation and make it sustainable, it’s Amazon,” she explained. “So I feel really motivated, but I don’t think we’ll be able to do this without a companywide plan to match the scale and urgency of the climate crisis.”

The other factor reflects the relationship between shareholder activism and the bottom line. As an Amazon stockholder, Sheppard is directly invested in the company’s success.

Hearts, minds and climate change

As strongly worded as the open letter is, in some respects it pales beside the actual proposal included in the proxy statement.

The letter paints a positive picture of Amazon’s ability to transform from climate laggard to leader, envisioning a future in which the company can “spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis.”

The proposal, in contrast, makes it clear that Amazon is at risk of failing to recruit top talent in the coming years. It states that “Amazon is not a mere victim of climate change—its operations contribute significantly to the problem.”

The proposal also notes that Amazon has a lot of catching up to do, in terms of innovating on climate change: “Multiple industries will have to modernize to meet this mandate. Coal still powers Amazon data centers. Diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel still power package delivery.”

Hammering home the point, the proposal warns that “many of Amazon’s peers, including Google, UPS, Walmart and Target, have reported on climate change plans.”

Amazon’s Board of Directors has advised shareholders to vote against the proposal, and it will most likely fail.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the big picture. With the urgency of climate action in plain sight, today’s young job-seekers are faced with a unique opportunity to build climate action into their career choices. The Amazon letter is just the opening salvo in the new climate battlefront.

Image credit: Biodin/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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