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8,000 Amazon employees asked the company to do more on climate change. Shareholders just said no.

Amazon is already doing a lot to reduce its carbon footprint — but employees say it’s not enough.

An Amazon Go store.
Amazon says it’s doing its part on climate change. Employees pushed to see exactly what that means.
David Ryder/Getty Images

Amazon shareholders just voted down a proposal backed by more than 7,500 Amazon employees asking Jeff Bezos to create a comprehensive climate-change plan for the company. But just because the proposal didn’t get through this time doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

While the push may have failed, that it existed in the first place shows the increased pressure corporations are under to act on global warming and take their role in it seriously. It also signals that tech workers, historically hesitant to speak out, are becoming more willing to serve as corporate activists and weigh in on the moral and ethical decisions of the firms that employ them.

On April 10, an open letter was published on Medium calling for Bezos and Amazon’s board of directors to adopt a climate plan shareholder resolution — the one up for a vote on Wednesday — and release a climate plan including setting emissions-cuts goals, transitioning away from fossil fuels, and prioritizing climate impact in business decisions.

At the time, 3,500 Amazon employees had signed their names to the letter. That number has now more than doubled.

“For a company the size of Amazon, there just can’t be a program here and there [on climate], it can’t be a patchwork of solutions that are happening in the different businesses that Amazon is involved in. It has to be a priority at the top,” Weston Fribley, a software engineer at Amazon, told Recode. He is one of 28 current and former Amazon employees and shareholders who filed the climate change proposal late last year.

The climate proposal was one of a dozen shareholder proposals Amazon stockholders voted on at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. Shareholders rejected all of them. The Amazon employees behind the climate proposal say they plan to introduce it again next year.

The Amazon climate proposal got a lot of public support

A group of Amazon employee stockholders initially filed the shareholder resolution on climate change last fall. The resolution, now on the company’s 2019 proxy statement, calls for Amazon to provide a public report describing how it is “planning for disruptions posed by climate change, and how Amazon is reducing its company-wide dependence on fossil fuels.”

Representatives from the initial group that filed the resolution met with Amazon in January to discuss their push. “Our goal is to try to see, does the company have any goals around carbon reduction? Would they be willing to share those goals? If they weren’t willing to share those goals, would they tell us if there are goals or not?” Fribley said.

They began circulating the draft of the employee letter that would later become public and gathering signatures for it. While that was happening, Amazon in February announced Shipment Zero, a goal for itself “to reach 50 percent of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030.” The company also said it would share Amazon’s company-wide carbon footprint at some point this year.

Amazon is already doing a lot to reduce its carbon footprint — but employees say it’s not enough

The company has invested in wind power and solar power, but employees say that’s not enough, particularly since the company’s business model is a key source of global carbon emissions.

The online retailer — one of the top five most valuable US companies — relies on diesel-guzzling delivery trucks to deliver billions of packages to customers each year. As Vox’s David Roberts points out, in 2016, transportation overtook power plants as the top producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the US for the first time since 1979.

Even before the rise of online shopping and residential deliveries, urban freight traffic generated a disproportionate amount of emissions, although it represented a small proportion of overall traffic. These emissions include the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming as well as a range of other pollutants that have deleterious health impacts on communities.

In their letter, employees said Amazon’s Shipment Zero plan doesn’t actually reduce the company’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Shipment Zero only commits to net carbon reductions, which allows us to continue to pollute; we recently ordered 20,000 diesel vans whose emissions will need to be offset with carbon credits. Offsets can entail forest management policies that displace Indigenous communities, and they do nothing to reduce our diesel pollution which disproportionately harms communities of color.

Employees wanted Amazon to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, not just for package shipping but across the entire company and within the company’s entire supply chain.

Fribley said that after the company announced its new Shipment Zero plan, Amazon contacted the group that filed the shareholder resolution and asked them to withdraw it.

They met with the company a second time — but that was the same week Gizmodo published a story outlining how Amazon had been courting the fossil fuel industry and big oil companies such as BP, Shell, and Halliburton. It had, for example, offered machine learning tools for oilfield exploration to help companies discover and extract more oil faster.

“It’s incredibly clear that there is no company-wide comprehensive plan, or else that never would have been activity the company was engaging in,” Fribley said.

And so the resolution wasn’t dropped.

Investment advisory firms ISS and Glass Lewis both recommended their clients back the proposal. Glass Lewis, in explaining its reasoning, said the report would help shareholders understand how Amazon “is ensuring resilience to climate-related disruptions and would provide reassurance to employees that issues related to climate change are being taken seriously.” The ACLU also backed the resolution.

Amazon recommended shareholders vote against it, arguing that it believes it is already doing its part on setting and discussing goals on climate change. The group behind the proposal tweeted from inside the shareholder meeting on Wednesday and expressed disappointment at the company’s handling of the matter.

Amazon employees held a press conference after the meeting, during which a number of them spoke about their concerns around climate change and continued to press the company to take action. Emily Cunningham, who presented about the proposal at the shareholder meeting, said, “The climate crisis is not going anywhere, and neither are we.”

The public — and employees — are starting to expect more from corporations on climate

Beyond the specifics of this Amazon shareholder resolution on climate change, it is a signal of some broader trends.

The public has increasingly high expectations of corporations to pay attention to global warming, and companies are under pressure to respond. Polls show that Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change, and the attention the Green New Deal and figures such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have brought to the matter have intensified the global warming debate.

And after the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris climate agreement in June 2017, corporate America has had a bigger role in stepping in. On the shareholder end alone, companies are expected to see a record of at least 75 climate-related resolutions this year.

Tech employees are also demonstrating their willingness to weigh in on what their employers are up to. Recode’s Jason Del Rey noted the trend when the Amazon employee letter first went public in April:

The movement inside Amazon is the latest signal that tech workers are increasingly willing to play the role of corporate activist. Last April, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s work for the Pentagon. In November, more than 20,000 Google employees participated in an organized walkout following a bombshell report that company leadership gave a $90 million payout to a top executive pushed out over sexual misconduct claims.

Amazon employees have challenged management over the last year, too, on issues ranging from the lack of diversity on its board of directors to selling its facial-recognition software to the police.

In other words, Amazon and others should expect more pushes from shareholders, employees, and the public at large to do the right thing.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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