Over the last six months, dozens and then thousands of Amazon employees mounted an unprecedented public campaign to pressure the company toward substantive, science-based action on climate change.
The effort reached a peak Wednesday, as climate-focused Amazon employees dressed in white shirts stood as a group while one of their number formally asked Jeff Bezos and the company’s stockholders to endorse their proposal for a detailed report on climate risks and fossil-fuel use.
Later, in a question-and-answer session, employees tried to pin Bezos down, asking him directly for specific timelines and targets for reducing the company’s emission of greenhouse gases. But Bezos would not commit. At least not yet.
“It’s hard to find an issue that’s more important than climate change. The science is super-compelling on this. There’s no doubt about it,” said Bezos, the Amazon founder, chairman and chief executive.
He chronicled the company’s previously announced steps, including its recent “Shipment Zero” pledge to eliminate the emissions from half of Amazon deliveries to customers by 2030. He noted that e-commerce and cloud computing “are inherently more carbon efficient than their alternatives. Building your own data centers, very bad. Driving yourself to the store to pick up a gallon of milk… very bad. So we’re doing a lot intrinsically, and have been for 20 years.”
But Bezos deferred to a deputy when an employee asked him when the company would reach its long-term target of 100% renewable energy.
The back-and-forth with the world’s richest person on one of the world’s most pressing issues provided several moments of high drama at an event otherwise designed to quietly take care of Amazon’s mandated public-company business – principally the election of 10 board directors. There was also some levity.
The meeting at times sounded like an airing of grievances in the austere throne room of some vast empire, only partly because of Amazon chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky’s joke about opening a data center in the fictional “Game of Thrones” city of King’s Landing.
Later, before another question about Amazon’s plans as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, a woman tried to personally return some Passover seder guides to Bezos.
“My apologies that you had to use this unusual venue for a return,” Bezos told the woman, who said she had tried unsuccessfully to send the Haggadahs back through normal channels.
The range of issues brought before Amazon owners and management, through shareholder proposals and company presentations inside the meeting as well as protests and news conferences outside, underscores the vast sweep and varied impacts of Amazon’s operations, which last year generated $233 billion in net revenue.
Unionized pilots for carriers that serve Amazon Prime Air — a piece of the company’s massive and growing logistics system — marched next to contract security guards, accompanied by a four-piece band, who are fighting to unionize. Activists opposed to Amazon’s development and sale of facial recognition technology to governments held a banner across the street from a group of housing and homeless advocates.
“I see all these issues as interconnected,” said Cheryl McArthur, who volunteers at homeless shelters in the city, and wants to see Amazon contribute more to fund affordable housing in Seattle. “It’s an environmental issue, too.”
(The company and Bezos himself have provided financial support and space for Mary’s Place, which provides temporary housing for unsheltered women and families.)
Amazon was the target this year of a concerted effort by activist shareholders frustrated with its response to their concerns. In rapid succession, they presented their proposals, a dozen in all, seeking reports or policy changes on food waste, sexual harassment, pay equity, hate speech and the sale of offensive products, a perceived lack of conservative representation on the board of directors, and the structure of the board itself, seeking to separate the chairman and CEO roles, both held by Bezos.
All the shareholder proposals were opposed by the board in a proxy statement filed in April, and all failed, the company announced Wednesday. Amazon is expected to release vote tallies on Friday, which should provide some insight into investor sentiment on the issues at hand.
Filled with emotion and undeterred by their proposal’s failure, a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice — nearly 7,700 of whom put their names to an open letter to Bezos and the board this spring — gathered outside the meeting to talk about why they’re speaking up and what happens next.
Rajit Iftikhar, an Amazon software engineer, said he is the proud son of Bangladeshi immigrant parents. He noted the displacement and risk to rural people in his parents’ home country from more intense and frequent cyclones and flooding driven by a warming climate. These climate refugees are rushing to cities inadequately equipped to handle them, Iftikhar said, adding that he fears for aunts and uncles still living there.
“As people who now live in a position of privilege, it is our responsibility to speak for the people who aren’t at the table,” he said, recounting advice from his mother. “I want Amazon to do more on the climate crisis because I think it is unacceptable for one of the richest companies in the world to continue to take half-actions as the consequences of its emissions put so many lives of the global poor at risk.”
Emily Cunningham, who formally presented the employee shareholder proposal during the meeting, said that despite its defeat, employees are undaunted.
“I feel like we’ve won in so many ways already,” she said, citing Amazon’s commitment to release its carbon footprint for the first time, and the Shipment Zero program. “We’re really started to change the narrative of what’s possible at Amazon.”
At the same time, she said, it will be critical for the team of top executives who report directly to Bezos to meet the climate crisis with appropriate urgency. When that so-called S-team adopts a goal, the entire company can move very quickly and aggressively toward it, she said.
“We could have a profound impact … because of how many businesses Amazon touches,” Cunningham said.
Executives at the shareholder meeting mostly talked about existing programs, though there were some subtle new details.
Kara Hurst, Amazon’s sustainability chief, and Olsavsky both referred to efforts to invest in electric vehicles and to help the company’s delivery service providers launch a low-pollution, last-mile delivery fleet. As it makes those plans, however, Amazon last year announced it was buying 20,000 diesel delivery vans to lease to small businesses its recruiting to serve its last-mile needs.
That equipment purchase and Amazon’s recent move to standard one-day shipping for U.S. Prime customers raises questions about how Amazon intends to hit the Shipment Zero goal, which eventually calls for net zero carbon emissions from deliveries to customers. That initiative, announced in February, followed several years of looking for “where we could have the biggest contribution to a low-carbon economy,” Olsavsky said.
Some observers read “net zero” to mean Amazon would rely on emissions offsets, such as tree-planting projects, to reach the goal, rather than through direct emissions reductions.
Not so, Olsavsky said. “We aim to do this largely without carbon offsets,” he said, adding that it won’t be easy and the company intends to be “stubborn” in its pursuit of the Shipment Zero goal.
Hurst reiterated the company’s plan to release its companywide footprint and related plans later this year. Amazon is at work on a system that its business units can use “to attack our carbon footprint,” she said.
Observers will be watching for whether Amazon aims to reduce emissions in accordance with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, as have a growing number of major corporations. Scientists say global emissions must be cut 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and zeroed out by midcentury, to moderate the effects of climate change.