Amazon Makes 'Climate Pledge' As Workers Plan Walkout

Sep 19, 2019
Originally published on September 20, 2019 6:26 am

Amazon is "done being in the middle of the herd" when it comes to climate-focused company policies, CEO Jeff Bezos said Thursday.

The company is pledging to power its global infrastructure with 100% renewable energy by 2030 and to be carbon-neutral by 2040. To help get there, it plans to buy 100,000 electric delivery vans from Michigan-based company Rivian, in which Amazon previously invested.

Amazon says its Climate Pledge will meet the Paris climate agreement 10 years ahead of schedule. The company is also inviting other companies to sign onto the pledge.

"It's a difficult challenge for us because we have deep large physical infrastructure. We're not only moving information around ... we deliver more than 10 billion items a year," Bezos told reporters Thursday. "And so we can make the argument — and we plan to do so passionately — that if we can do this, anyone can do this."

Amazon's announcement marks the most sweeping climate-related action from the company, one day before more than 1,500 corporate workers planned a walkout to draw attention to their criticisms of the company's climate policies. Amazon has lagged behind other companies — including tech giants like Facebook and Google — in reaching the goal of 100% renewable energy and sharing data about its emissions.

The Amazon workers' planned walkout Friday is part of a series of rallies called the Global Climate Strike ahead of Monday's U.N. Climate Action Summit. Workers complained that the company known for its obsession with data and measurable goals would not share data on its own carbon footprint, calling on Amazon to get to zero emissions by 2030.

"Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we'll be in the streets to continue the fight for a livable future," the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice said in a statement Thursday. The walkout also is expected to draw some workers from Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

Thousands of Amazon employees earlier this year signed a shareholder resolution to set a climate change plan, which did not pass. More than 8,000 workers had also signed an open letter to Bezos, calling for Amazon to set measurable goals, to end contracts with oil and gas companies and to stop donating to lawmakers who deny climate change.

"I think it's totally understandable people are passionate about this issue," Bezos said, adding that Amazon would review its campaign donations. The company will also invest $100 million to restore and protect forests, grasslands and wetlands.

However, Bezos said he disagreed with the employees' call to end contracts with energy companies and stop providing them with cloud computing tools. "To ask oil and energy companies to do this transition with bad tools is not a good idea and we won't do that," he said.

Elizabeth Sturcken, a managing director at the Environmental Defense Fund, called Amazon's Climate Pledge an encouraging step in the right direction.

"They were in danger of being left behind as a laggard," she said. "There's a lot of hard work ahead for Amazon. But these ambitious, aspirational goals need to be turned into meaningful milestones, and they need to act transparently."

Bezos said Amazon will measure and regularly report online information about its carbon footprint and work toward reducing it.

Editor's note: Amazon is one of NPR's recent financial supporters.

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While most of us were sleeping, hundreds of thousands of people around the world were on the march warning of the dangers of climate change. People here in the U.S. are joining in today, including workers at e-commerce giant Amazon. But before those workers could strike, their boss unexpectedly stole the narrative. I'm joined now by NPR's Alina Selyukh. And I'm just going to note here before we start - Amazon is an NPR sponsor. So, Alina, before we get to what Jeff Bezos did, what can you tell us about what is happening today? How many Amazon employees are taking part in these climate protests?

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: They're expecting more than 1,500 Amazon workers to walk off the job today. They are expecting to be joined by other tech workers from Google and Facebook. And this is important context because there is this group inside Amazon called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. And they previously organized a shareholder resolution that was focused on climate change; for example, asking Amazon to report how it plans to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

MARTIN: Mmm hmm.

SELYUKH: And this resolution got signed by thousands of Amazon workers - publicly with their names and titles - which was quite unprecedented for Amazon. There's a video of Amazon worker Emily Cunningham presenting this resolution at the shareholder meeting in May. I spoke to her yesterday.

EMILY CUNNINGHAM: I just knew that I had to speak up. I felt like it was my moral responsibility. But at the same time, I was also speaking up against my boss, who also is the richest man in the world. And so while I was very determined to do it, it was also very scary. And in the video, you can see that I'm shaking.

SELYUKH: The resolution failed, but it got the attention of more Amazon employees. And over 8,000 workers ended up signing an open letter to Bezos, asking to aggressively reduce emissions, to stop contracts with oil and gas companies, to stop campaign contributions to politicians who deny the existence of climate change. And their next act today is the climate walkout. So it's not a coincidence that Bezos chose yesterday to unveil Amazon's new climate pledge.

MARTIN: He's like, surprise. I've heard you. I've come out with this new climate pledge. Does it meet those people's demands? What's in it?

SELYUKH: Not entirely. It seems to be a separate thing. It was presented as a very separate thing but not a coincidence. And it's Amazon's plan, as they put it, to meet the Paris climate accord 10 years ahead of schedule. Here's Bezos speaking yesterday.


JEFF BEZOS: We've been in the middle of the herd on this issue. And we want to move to the forefront. We want to say, look, if a company of Amazon's complexity, physical infrastructure, delivering 10 billion items can do this, so can you.

SELYUKH: Amazon says by 2030, it will use 100% renewable energy to power it's global infrastructure, which, if you think about it, includes trucks and warehouses and massive data centers. So for example, Amazon has put in a huge order of 100,000 electric delivery vans. The company's goal is to be carbon neutral by 2040, meaning it would emit far less carbon dioxide or offset those emissions by investing in things like wind farms and planting trees.

MARTIN: So we heard Bezos say Amazon has been in the middle of the herd or the middle of the pack. What does that mean exactly?

SELYUKH: Right. So when I talked to environmental advocates and groups that followed this, they argued Bezos may have been a bit generous with that description. But so - Amazon does have a group focused on sustainability. They're working on reducing packaging waste. Bezos himself has talked about how important climate concerns are before yesterday.

MARTIN: Mmm hmm.

SELYUKH: But for example, Amazon had not disclosed its carbon footprint, like many companies have done, until yesterday. And it's a big one. It gets a bit tricky comparing different companies here. But if you look at Amazon's plans on just renewable energy, other tech giants like Google and Facebook have already or almost reached the goal that Amazon just set for 2030. But on the retail side, Amazon's goals are more ambitious than its biggest competitor, Walmart. So inside Amazon, the climate advocates definitely celebrated the news of the climate pledge...


SELYUKH: ...But the workers still plan to walk out today for what they call the, quote, "fight for a livable future."

MARTIN: NPR's Alina Selyukh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.