Even Jeff Bezos can’t afford to ignore his employees’ climate-change demands

Sell everything.
Sell everything.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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Employee activism is coming for Jeff Bezos.

To a degree, it’s been in his orbit for a while. Amazon warehouse employees have been blowing the whistle about punishing working conditions and organizing walkouts for years—most recently in July on Amazon’s high holiday, Prime Day. A year after Whole Foods was sold to Amazon in 2017, its employees started discussing unionizing. And just recently, about 500 employees signed a letter to the company asking it to cut ties with a software firm working with ICE, the federal agency behind migrant family separations at the US-Mexico border.

Now, an even larger group of employees at the company’s Seattle base, right in the mothership, are taking up a different cause. On September 20, at 11:30 am local time, more than 1,000 Amazon headquarters employees plan to walk out in protest of company practices that contribute to the current climate crisis, adding their voices to the planned Global Climate Strike. This will be the first walkout at Amazon headquarters in the company’s 25-year history.

Amazon is a climate laggard

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, the group behind the protest, have named three specific demands:

1. Zero emissions by 2030: Pilot electric vehicles first in communities most impacted by our pollution

2. Zero custom Amazon Web Services (AWS) contracts for fossil fuel companies to accelerate oil and gas extraction

3. Zero funding for climate denying lobbyists and politicians

To some, the asks may seem pie-in-the-sky and even philosophically controversial. What kind of slippery slope are you on when, per the second demand, you start passing moral judgment on your customers—or when you cut off oil and gas firms, but not other polluting industries?

The employee group offers more nuance in a Medium post about their plans. Regarding their first demand, for instance, they write:

We know that reaching zero emissions by 2030 won’t be easy. But this is not the time to shy away from the challenge. We recognize it takes time for technology to develop: short-haul electric shipping already exists, and short-haul electric flights are coming soon (Norway has mandated that all domestic flights be electric by 2040 and Vancouver-based Harbour Air is switching its seaplanes to 100% electric); long-haul flights and tankers may take longer. But a company with the innovation, boldness, and resources of Amazon should be at the forefront of driving this transformation of our economy that the climate crisis requires.

Amazon, the authors rightfully point out, has the power to get things done. “Investment by the company in electrified aviation or maritime shipping would be a game-changer,” they write.

The company has set climate goals in the past. Earlier this year, it announced Shipment Zero, a promise to cut shipping emissions in half by 2030 and down to nothing in time. Five years ago, it pledged to someday run 100% of AWS on renewable energy. “It’s so far only met half of [that] stated goal,” Grist reports. “Both Google and Apple already power their operations with 100 percent clean energy, and Facebook says it is not far behind.”

Amazon also has been harshly criticized for not sharing how much carbon it emits with the UK’s Climate Disclosure Project—although the company recently said it will measure and share its carbon footprint with its own internally developed and not-yet-transparent methodology.

Amazon can only continue to orchestrate globe-spanning commerce if the globe is healthy enough to supply the demand

When it comes to Amazon’s reputation as a laggard on climate change, Bezos isn’t just risking unrest inside the house. His company is in a daily battle for talent, where still-imperfect companies trying harder to hit specific environmental goals may hold greater appeal for climate-conscious workers.

But if employee dissatisfaction or recruiting challenges don’t feel like enough of a threat to Amazon’s long-term survival, there’s also climate change itself to consider.

When nearly 200 CEOs signed a new definition of the purpose of companies issued by the Business Roundtable lobbying group, they acknowledged that companies must balance the needs of all stakeholders—not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities. The group specifically called out its duty to “protect the environment” by “embracing sustainable practices.”

Those business leaders are also declaring a need to protect their own future commercial interests. “We only thrive where there are thriving economies,” Mike Froman, president of strategic growth at Mastercard and a former advisor to US president Barack Obama on trade, told reporters on Sept. 13, in reference to that mission statement, to which Amazon, too, is a signatory.

The walkout may signal a fundamental shift

Attacking Amazon is an exercise in self-examination. We are the consumers who want to log on at any time of day and find products—seatbelts for dogs, whitening toothpaste, air fryers—that will solve a “problem” in our lives, and have it on our doorstep by tomorrow. In the US alone, it is estimated that more than 60 million households have Amazon Prime accounts. Even customers without Prime benefit anyway from the pressure Amazon has put on other companies to help it reduce costs and delivery times.

But if you feel conflicted, think about what it’s like to be an Amazon employee preparing to speak up against the company that directly supports your livelihood.

Some employees have told reporters they’ll be taking holiday time to join the protest, which feels a bit like a compromise of spirit, if an understandable one. The atmosphere at Amazon has been described as Darwinian, where pampering employees the way Google or Facebook does has never been seen as necessary. But as we’ve seen at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and other tech companies where employee activism has surfaced in the past few years, once staffers begin to organize, they tend to stay in the fight. We’re still seeing a constant drip of leaks and protests at these firms over issues like pay discrimination and sexual harassment—even at Google, where many of the organizers of a global, 20,000-employee walkout last year over gender bias have since left the company, the activist spirit very much remains.

From the outside, at least, it appears as though the relationship between the employer and employees has fundamentally changed.

Will this change spread to Amazon? Indeed it already has. Bezos ultimately might not cave to his activist employees’ demands, but their open protest of the company’s record on climate change, all by itself, tells us Amazon’s culture has entered a whole new era.