Amazon’s climate pledge confirms the new power of employees

A climate laggard no more?
A climate laggard no more?
Image: Getty Images for Amazon/Paul Morigi
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Early yesterday morning in Seattle, Roshni Naidu’s phone began blowing up with incoming text messages.

They came from friends and also from colleagues who, like Naidu, a senior technical product manager at Amazon, were part of an employee group that had asked CEO Jeff Bezos to take a leading position on climate change issues. The workers, called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, had planned a walkout that’s happening at Amazon today (Sept. 20) in conjunction with the global Climate Strike, in what will be the first walkout at Amazon headquarters in the company’s 25-year history.

“Hey, this happened!” was the gist of the text messages, referring to Bezos’ announcement of a pledge to make Amazon a carbon-neutral company by 2040.

Although Bezos didn’t connect his announcement to the protest, which 1,600 Amazon employees have so far pledged to join—and although the target date is 10 years later than the carbon-neutral deadline the employees were seeking—the activist group is claiming a major win.

Asked how much she feels her group can take credit for Bezos’ new promise, Naidu says, “I want to say all of it?”

A spokesperson for Amazon, however, says the company had been working on its Climate Pledge project for years and that its leadership feels as passionately about the issues as employees do.

That may be, but the timing of the announcement seems undeniably connected to today’s walkout.

One out of three demands met, in less than a year

The Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group only came together last October, when the group managed to present a shareholder resolution at the company’s annual shareholders meeting. That resolution, which asked that Amazon use its unfathomable weight to support innovations that would reduce its carbon footprint and combat climate change, did not get passed. Thousands of employees later signed a letter to Bezos making similar demands, however. While the letter was circulating, Amazon announced Shipment Zero, a plan to bring its carbon emissions to zero at an unspecified date in the future.

Certain that “Amazon could do better,” says Naidu, the group planned today’s protest. They announced their intentions a few weeks ago, perhaps hoping that Bezos would preemptively respond to their three 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

Amazon’s new climate pledge notably does not speak to the group’s second or third demands. But employees say they are thrilled with the effect their work has appeared to have on the ambitions of the richest man in the world and the head of a nearly trillion-dollar business interest. As one new step toward its zero-emissions goal, for instance, Bezos said the company would be purchasing 100,000 electric delivery vans from the US startup automaker Rivian. It is the largest-ever purchase order for light-duty electric vehicles, and could very well could accelerate this segment of the electrics industry.

For Amazon, the move to get out in front of the herd, to use Bezos’s chosen idiom, makes sense. In the war for talent, a top concern for the country’s biggest corporations, Amazon is finally looking like less of a laggard. And, on a more basic level, the threat that climate change poses to economies everywhere, and to life itself, has become impossible for businesses to ignore.

We hope it inspires others

When Naidu addresses the crowd of striking workers, which will include protesting employees from other big tech firms, including Microsoft and Facebook, part of her message will be directed at the teens of the world to thank them for launching the Climate Strike movement. But the other part will be aimed at other employees in tech and elsewhere.

“It’s not like, as employees, we started doing this like, ‘Oh, you know what? This is going to work. It will be great,'” she says. “There was a lot of planning and a lot of uncertainty about how we were going to do this. At least from my end, I was like, ‘Do we actually want to go that far?’ And as a group, we decided, yes, we can and we should.”

Naidu says her manager and others have asked that employees let their supervisors know when they’ll be away from their desks during today’s action, but no one that she is aware of has told any employees not to participate.

Hopefully, she says, “this will inspire other employees who want to work on other issues, like sexism and racism, to put something together and think big,” she says. “Don’t necessarily go for what’s reasonable.”

Now, when the employees gather at Amazon in Seattle today at 11 am local time, they plan to celebrate too, before they begin their march to city hall.