As over a thousand Amazon employees prepared to walk off the job last September, CEO Jeff Bezos announced a series of lofty promises. Not about salary increases or more vacation time, but about climate change. Bezos said that Amazon would become carbon neutral by 2040, meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement 10 years early. It was an ambitious commitment, especially for a logistics giant that relies on planes and trucks to deliver packages right to customers’ doors.
The next day, Amazon workers still marched out of the company’s Seattle headquarters as part of a global climate strike led by teenage activist Greta Thunberg. But the walkout’s organizers, a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, said that Bezos' Climate Pledge was a step in the right direction. Since then, Amazon has followed up the commitment with other efforts, including a $2 billion investment fund for companies working on decarbonization. This week, Amazon announced a new Climate Change Friendly program to help customers choose more sustainable products.
One year after the walkout, current and former workers who spoke with WIRED say Amazon should still be doing more to reduce its impact on the environment. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice has demanded that the company commit to reaching zero carbon emissions by 2030, a far more ambitious agenda than the one Bezos announced last year.
“We thought when the Climate Pledge came out that Amazon was getting ready to lead on climate,” says one of the workers, who, like all current employees in this story, asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “It seems like there are other companies leading the way more than Amazon is.”
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Microsoft has said that it wants to be “carbon negative” within the next decade, promising to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits. Apple plans for its entire supply chain to be carbon neutral by 2030. Google committed to achieving zero emissions by 2030, meaning it will cease emitting carbon into the atmosphere completely. Even Walmart says it will achieve zero emissions by 2040. Amazon, on the other hand, has promised only to become “net” zero within the same timeframe—a strategy that typically relies on offset projects to make up for continuing to use fossil fuels.
A spokesperson for Amazon characterized the Climate Pledge as a bold goal and said that, unlike many tech companies, Amazon needs to account for the carbon footprint generated by shipping products around the world. As Amazon continues to grow and acquire more planes, delivery vans, and computer servers, its emissions levels are also always increasing, making it harder for the company to lessen its environmental impact.
Amazon also denied that any of its work on sustainability or climate change was influenced by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. The spokesperson pointed to a recent Bloomberg News story reporting that Amazon’s head of sustainability, Kara Hurst, told executives in 2016—before the worker activism began—that the company could “meet aggressive climate targets without breaking promises to customers.” The article also notes, however, that Hurt’s team interpreted the work of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice as a sign of growing concern among customers about climate issues.
Even as Amazon made progress on the environment over the past year, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice repeatedly found itself in the company’s crosshairs. Two AECJ leaders, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, were fired earlier this year after circulating a petition demanding more protections for Amazon warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic. “We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about sustainability working conditions or safety but rather for repeatedly violating internal policies,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
Other members of AECJ called the decision disgraceful. “I think it’s such a shame that they fired Emily and Maren, because I feel like such a large company needs visionary leaders like them,” one worker said.
Amazon is supposed to be a company where “dissenting in the workplace isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s good to have different kinds of opinions and ideas,” says Victoria Liang, a former software engineer at Amazon who is still active with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. The AECJ members say that they plan to continue collaborating with warehouse workers, especially because Amazon’s logistics centers are often situated in low-income communities, which are likely to be hit the first and hardest by climate change. “Even if they’re not working a desk job, they’re still our coworkers, and together we have more power,” says Liang.
At Amazon, employees say that climate activism has given their work lives more meaning. “It really has made me want to stay at the company, seeing how much change we can make with a relatively small group of people,” says one worker.