Unlike some of its rival technology giants, Amazon.com Inc. has never claimed a loftier purpose than selling its shoppers what they want, quickly and cheaply. Its mission statement: to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”
As political storms have overtaken Facebook and Alphabet’s Google in the last few years, Amazon’s pursuit of commerce over utopian visions has mostly served it well, insulating it from charges of bias or hypocrisy and helping it remain one of Americans’ most trusted brands. But over the last year, a growing contingent of employees has been calling for the company to embrace the mantle of higher corporate responsibility and help combat the perils of climate change.
On Friday, hundreds of Amazon employees walked out of the firm’s Seattle headquarters, as did contingents from Amazon offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Dublin and other cities, as part of a global “climate strike” also including employees of other companies, students and youth groups. The effort was timed ahead of a United Nations Climate Action Summit to be held Monday in New York.
The group leading the Amazon walkout — Amazon Employees for Climate Justice — has spent this year urging Chief Executive Jeff Bezos and the rest of senior management to take more urgent steps, and the workers’ efforts are a key reason Amazon’s overall environmental footprint increasingly is coming under scrutiny.
Their protests appeared to pay off Thursday when Bezos announced that Amazon would significantly step up its effort to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels to power its massive operations.
Under a new Climate Pledge, Amazon is committed to the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, a decade earlier than called for under the United Nations Paris Agreement, Bezos said.
As part of that initiative, he said, Amazon will be using 100% renewable energy companywide by 2030, a goal the employees’ group has been seeking.
Amazon will order 100,000 electric-powered delivery trucks from the automaker Rivian as part of the effort, Bezos said. Amazon earlier had made a $440-million investment in Rivian.
“We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue — we’ve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference,” Bezos said in a statement, adding that Amazon is pushing for other companies to join the pledge.
The employees’ group responded on Twitter, saying that Amazon’s pledge was “a huge win” for the group and that “we’re thrilled at what the workers have achieved in under a year.”
“But we know it’s not enough,” the group said Thursday. “The Paris agreement, by itself, won’t get us to a livable world. Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we’ll be in the streets.”
On Friday, Maren Costa, an Amazon user experience designer, joined the walkout at company headquarters in Seattle and brought her three children. “Their generation is the one that is most impacted by the damage that our generation is doing,” she said. Costa, 50, said she has worked at Amazon for 15 years, helping to design the shopping website and launch Amazon Go stores.
“I was walking on air yesterday, I was so happy” about Bezos’ announcement, she said. “I’m so proud of Amazon for taking that big step forward. But it’s not enough.” She is among the employees who want the company to end its contracts with oil and gas companies.
The heightened focus on Amazon comes as Americans are increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change, according to a survey early this year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Amazon’s slowness in switching to renewable energy has been one focus of its climate critics. They’ve also assailed the company, with sales of nearly $233 billion last year, for selling its computer services to the oil and natural gas industry, for shifting more toward plastic mailers for deliveries that are not easy to recycle, and for donating to the campaigns of congressional representatives who have voted against climate legislation.
“They need to do more and be more urgent,” said Danilo Quilaton, an Amazon product designer in San Francisco and one of the employee group’s organizers.
“Amazon employees are deeply concerned about the climate crisis, and we see how it’s impacting our lives,” Quilaton said. “They’re not moving fast enough.”
U.S. workers, especially in the technology industry, increasingly have been pushing for corporate activism on social and environmental matters.
At Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit, employees have protested the firm’s development of a search engine for China, its work on artificial intelligence for missile drones and its handling of sexual misconduct claims. In February, a group of Microsoft Corp. employees calling itself Microsoft Workers 4 Good called for the company to stop developing technology for military use. In May, more than 200 workers walked out of the Los Angeles headquarters of Riot Games Inc., maker of the “League of Legends” video game, over its handling of sexual discrimination lawsuits. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter employees, among others, joined the Amazon workers in the climate protest Friday, and another of the Amazon group’s organizers, Emily Cunningham, tweeted Thursday that it would be the “first ever cross-tech walkout.”
At Amazon, the employee group in April wrote an open letter to Bezos and Amazon’s other directors calling for the company’s board to take more urgent steps to fight climate change. The letter, posted on the website Medium, has more than 8,100 signatures.
That’s only about 1% of Amazon’s workforce of 653,300 full- and part-time employees, but some analysts expected their activism would get the attention of Bezos — who is the world’s richest person, with a net worth of $113 billion, according to Forbes.
“It puts a lot of pressure on him to respond to this in a thoughtful way,” said Nell Minow, vice chairwoman of ValueEdge Advisors, which promotes strong corporate governance.