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Employees are pressuring Amazon to become a leader on climate. Here's how that could work

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE -- Amazon is preparing to do something it's never done before: disclose its companywide greenhouse gas emissions.

The commerce giant has an extensive list of renewable energy and sustainability programs underway, but in this fundamental area, it has been a laggard. Other top technology companies and retailers, including Walmart and about a fifth of the Fortune 500, have released emissions data and set specific, science-based reduction plans over the past few years; Amazon has not.

That makes it impossible to evaluate whether the world's largest e-commerce company is moving at the pace that scientists say is necessary to prevent the worst impacts of climate change -- let alone taking the leadership position on the issue thousands of employees want it to.

Amazon, with its diverse portfolio of energy-hungry businesses, faces a challenge in calculating and reducing emissions. Some recent moves, such as its push toward ever-faster delivery speeds for its core Prime customers, raise questions about its ability to do so.

Meanwhile, its influence over consumer behavior and its position at the hub of a vast, global supply chain give Amazon the opportunity for enormous impact beyond its own direct emissions.

"They could define a new standard for sustainable e-commerce," said Elizabeth Sturcken, who heads Environmental Defense Fund's work with corporations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Amazon has set ambitious, though still ambiguous, targets for renewable energy use -- its long-term goal is to power all of its global infrastructure that way -- and more recently for reducing emissions from shipments to customers. It touts the wind and solar energy already powering parts of its vast network of data centers and warehouses, the efficiency of its headquarters buildings and the public transportation its employees take to work.

But other moves, such as the purchase of a large fleet of diesel vans and the shift to one-day delivery, could complicate its plan to reduce emissions from its main business of selling and delivering goods to people's doors -- a model that otherwise has some inherent efficiency and emissions advantages.

More broadly, observers and employees viewing these seemingly contradictory goals and actions wonder how seriously Amazon leaders take the climate challenge.

Amazon said in February it would reveal its carbon footprint later this year. That announcement came shortly after employee shareholders filed a proposal, to be voted on at the company's annual meeting Wednesday, that would require the company to report publicly on how it will deal with disruptions caused by climate change and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The vote on the nonbinding resolution could give Amazon leaders a view of where stockholders stand on the issue.

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