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Tina Casey headshot

Amazon Workers Assert Free Speech Rights in Push For Climate Action

It's an awkward time for Amazon, as other corporations have begun to announce more aggressive climate action policies and employees continue to speak out.
By Tina Casey
Climate Action

The U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to speak out without government interference, but corporations are under no such obligation. Nevertheless, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement has blurred the line between public and private rights. The most recent test of those ethical boundaries is playing out this week, as Amazon employees engage in a renewed push for worker speech rights over the issue of climate action.

The new round of pressure comes at an especially awkward time for Amazon, as other leading corporations have begun to announce more aggressive climate action policies.

New climate action math: 1+1 = hundreds

The issue of worker speech rights at Amazon has been bubbling up to the surface since last year, when a group of employees concerned about climate change organized themselves under the name Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

The group quickly gained traction. Last April, thousands of Amazon employees signed on to a letter asking Amazon to develop a more aggressive stand on climate action. In September, an estimated 3,000 workers walked out of the company’s Seattle headquarters in support of the global Climate Strike.

Things came to a head earlier this month as news surfaced that Amazon had threatened to terminate two employees for drawing attention to the company’s fossil fuel business.

The media blowback was swift and fierce. Despite the negative publicity, though, it appears that Amazon did little to reassure its employees on climate action and speech rights. Last weekend, hundreds of current and former Amazon tech workers took to the Internet in a coordinated effort supporting the right to speak out on climate action.

Free speech on climate action as a corporate responsibility issue

To reiterate, the Constitution does not protect speech in the private sphere. Nevertheless, businesses can easily step into a media firestorm over free speech issues, as the Amazon case demonstrates.

The Amazon Employees For Climate Justice brought renewed attention to Amazon’s speech policy through a media blitz that included the release of a YouTube video on January 26, as well as a press release shared on Google Drive and on Medium.com.

The new media push features public statements by 357 current and former Amazon tech workers, in protest of the updated speech policy that Amazon issued last fall after the Global Climate Strike. The new policy reminds workers that they could be fired for commenting on company business without prior approval.

As a group, the employee statements conflate worker speech rights with rights guaranteed under the Constitution. However, in the context of corporate ethics that can be a distinction without a difference. Their argument for climate action is based on moral grounds, and the moral argument relates directly to the corporate social responsibility movement.

The moral argument makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Amazon to push back aggressively without undercutting other aspects of the company’s social responsibility  efforts.

“The climate crisis is just that urgent. We just couldn't be silenced by these policies on issues of such moral weight,” explained Victoria Liang, a software development engineer, in her public statement.

Employees also raised the issue of corporate culture, another aspect that relates directly to the corporate social responsibility movement.

“I’m proud to work at Amazon, but policies that silence employees who are challenging us to do better runs counter to our own leadership principles. When there is an issue of such importance, we have to be able to talk about it,” said Nolan Woodle, an associate contracts manager at Amazon.

The climate action race is on

The new round of employee activism comes at a time when Amazon is falling far behind the climate action curve.

Microsoft, for example, has just announced a plan to go beyond carbon offsets and achieve carbon-negative status, with the goal of removing all of its carbon emissions dating back the company’s founding in 1975.

Another important development occurred last week, when the top Italian insurance firm Generali joined 17 other leading asset managers in the United Nations Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance. Alliance members have pledged a 2050 goal for fossil fuel divestment, and the group has already taken steps to guide their portfolio companies into transitioning into renewable energy as quickly as possible.

Earlier this month, the leading firm BlackRock also announced that it will take a more aggressive stand on climate action. The company has talked the climate talk in the past, but this time it has lent more credence to its intentions by joining the green investor group Climate Action 100+.

Next steps for employee action on climate action

None of this has escaped the attention of employee activists at Amazon. In the new push for publicity, they credit employee activism with forcing Amazon to shift its policy on climate change last year. Now they urge the company to take a more aggressive stand.

Interestingly, Microsoft has also been singled out for its fossil fuel support services, and Microsoft employees were among those publicly joining the Global Climate Strike.

However, Microsoft has yet to experience the same degree of negative publicity over the issue. Perhaps it never will, now that it has acknowledged both its past and present role in climate change and has charted an aggressive course for transitioning to a more sustainable course future.

Amazon could take a page out of the Microsoft playbook by responding to employee demands. However, that’s going to be a tough row to hoe.

The company recently issued new sourcing policies under its sustainability guidelines, but policing those guidelines in a meaningful way across millions of sellers in the Amazon marketplace is a daunting task.

In addition, Amazon’s retail business model promotes a consumer culture of instant gratification, creating a ripple effect on carbon emissions in the transportation sector among other impacts.

That’s a clear contrast with the low carbon, circular economy model, which places behavior change and consumer responsibility in key roles.

With hundreds of employees now publicly challenging Amazon on their right to advocate for climate action, the company appears to be boxed into a corner, and it will be interesting to see how it can solve this dilemma.

Image credit: Pexels

Tina Casey headshot

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.

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