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Tina Casey headshot

Bezos Earth Fund: A $10 Billion Band-Aid for Amazon's Employee Activism Problem

By Tina Casey
Bezos Earth Fund

Earlier this week, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced that he is donating $10 billion of his personal fortune to establish the new Bezos Earth Fund, aimed at supporting efforts to address the impacts of climate change. That’s all well and good, but activist employees at Amazon have pointed out that it simply papers over the company’s contribution to climate change through its Amazon Web Services branch.

$10 billion to fight climate change and this is the thanks I get?

Amazon's founder sparked a torrent of media attention when he announced the new Bezos Earth Fund in a post on his personal Instagram account.

Though the $10 billion figure is impressive, several commenters on the post pointed out that the pledge is small in size relative to Bezos’s overall estimated wealth of more than $124 billion. Others took the opportunity to draw attention to Amazon’s notorious tax issues.

Social media comments could easily be the work of trolls and competitors, but there was no mistaking the reaction from Amazon employees.

A vocal group of employees has been pressuring Bezos to commit Amazon to serious action on climate change under the name, “Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.”

Soon after Bezos posted his pledge on Instagram, they shared a public message that gave Bezos props for philanthropy but otherwise excoriated him.

“When is Amazon going to stop helping oil and gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells?” they wrote, and continued:

“When is Amazon going to stop funding climate-denying think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and climate-delaying policy? When will Amazon take responsibility for the lungs of children near its warehouses by moving from diesel to all-electric trucking?”

The employee group also drew attention to a new Amazon policy that has an impact on the ability of employees to criticize the company in public.

“Will Jeff Bezos show us true leadership, or will he continue to be complicit in the acceleration of the climate crisis, while supposedly trying to help?” they concluded.

When your best philanthropy is not good enough

In bringing up the issue of philanthropy, the Amazon group touched on an ongoing trend within the corporate social responsibility movement.

The bar has been raised significantly since the 20th century, when the philanthropic model was the mainstay of corporate giving.

In the 21st century, a new model of corporate community involvement has begun to emerge.

Some of this activity has emerged in the media sphere, where leading companies have taken a stand against hate speech and other unacceptable behavior.

Others have spoken out on moral grounds against family separation and other controversial federal policies.

Still others have begun to partner with grassroots organizations on issues that were once considered taboo for corporate involvement, from common sense gun safety regulation to advocacy for LGBTQ civil rights.

The Bezos Earth Fund and climate action

That stepped-up behavior is reflected in the sphere of climate action and other environmental issues. Corporate leaders are beginning to move past the immediate goal of addressing their internal operations. They are  adopting science-based targets for climate action and tackling the crisis from a wholistic, global perspective.

This is the point where the Bezos commitment falls short.

Although Amazon has already moved to decarbonize its delivery operations, the Bezos pledge mirrors the recent “carbon neutral” pledges of several leading oil and gas producers.

Those plans lean heavily on continuing to produce oil and gas. Such efforts amount to tidying up around the edges without addressing the root of the problem.

In his post, Bezos wrote that the Bezos Earth Fund will support “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”

The details are yet to be seen, as Bezos plans to start funding projects later this year.

However, considering that Amazon’s oil and gas web service helps producers “identify potential reservoirs faster and cheaper,” chances are that the Bezos Earth Fund could help facilitate business as usual rather than working to help ensure that fossil carbon stays in the ground.

If Bezos thought to mollify Amazon employees with the new fund, he is most likely in for a surprise.

Image credit: Grant Miller for the George W. Bush Presidential Center/Flickr and Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey