I have a hunch why Amazon is getting so touchy about its employees speaking out about the company’s climate-change policies. In some cases it has even threatened to fire them.
This isn’t because of some “corporate communications” policy, which has been the official reason given. It’s also hard to imagine that even the strongest critiques about carbon accounting could be so embarrassing as to damage the business.
But if you read what Amazonians posted in their open letter this week, a certain sore point does keep coming up:
“Microsoft plans to be carbon negative (by 2030) sooner than we want to be carbon neutral (by 2040). How can Amazon claim to be ‘thinking big’?” wrote Duncan Scott, an Amazon software engineer.
“Hell, if Microsoft can do it (go carbon negative), why can’t we?” echoed Austin Dworaczyk Wiltshire, another Amazon engineer.
“The real pioneer moment went to Microsoft,” lamented Annett Stapf, an Amazon program manager. “I hope Bill Gates scratched Jeff´s competition-nerve.”
Microsoft. You have to say it in the same tone Jerry Seinfeld used to say “Newman.” Or to put it in more contemporary terms: It seems as though Microsoft is starting to live rent-free in Amazon’s head like Obama does in Trump’s. Morally superior, and so, also highly annoying.
“There’s a fierce competition between these two companies,” says Aseem Prakash, a political-science professor at the University of Washington. “And Microsoft right now is just being smarter.”
What happened is that last fall, Amazon announced a big go-green climate initiative, pledging to get the company carbon neutral by 2040. Prakash, who heads the UW’s Center for Environmental Politics, analyzed this plan and concluded it was a pretty good effort. Not a corporate greenwashing, he and a co-author concluded, but also not a game-changer.
But then two weeks ago, the Redmond software king announced it had not only leapfrogged Amazon’s end-goal date by 10 years, to 2030. But it would also go “carbon negative” – meaning it’s gunning to remove more carbon from the environment than its own operations and supply chains emit each year. Plus, it vowed to invest in new technologies to go so negative it will eventually remove an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equivalent to all it has ever produced, back to its 1975 founding.
“They are the first firm to take responsibility for past emissions, not just emissions going forward,” Prakash said. “It’s brilliant. It completely shifts the bar on corporate responsibility surrounding this issue.”
Microsoft’s pledge happened to come on the heels of news breaking that Amazon had been threatening to fire employees for publicly saying its climate policies don’t go far enough.
It’s just the latest public issue where Microsoft, once the evil empire, has seemed to put its local rival in a kind of do-gooder vise. For instance, last year Microsoft made huge pledges totaling $750 million in low-interest loans to help tackle the affordable-housing crisis in the Seattle region.
“Every day for 40 years, we at Microsoft have benefited from the support of this community,” the company president, Brad Smith, said then. “We want our success to support the region in return.”
He might as well have added: “Unlike you-know-who.”
Prakash defended Amazon a bit, saying tackling carbon emissions is far easier for a company that primarily makes software (Microsoft) than one that moves physical goods around (Amazon). But politically what Microsoft is doing is genius.
“They are pursuing a form of political and social insurance,” he said. “It could protect them from future bad publicity, and if it makes them look good compared to Amazon, then that’s a bonus.”
So will Amazon crack down on its outspoken greenie employees? Prakash said he’s amazed it’s even being considered. This is Seattle, after all — it would likely provoke a backlash, maybe beyond the one last fall when Amazon got slammed both locally and nationally for putting $1.5 million into Seattle’s local election.
“Amazon is a highly respected and admired company,” he said. “But it’s already in a war of sorts with Trump. It could find itself in fights with both the right and the left.”
Plus if that’s not irritating enough, guess who would probably be eager to swoop in and snap up all the fired workers anyway? That’s right: Microsoft.