Unlike most big companies, Amazon has never published a sustainability report. Recent hires suggest that may be about to change – but will the retailer play ball?
Amazon has a reputation for forward thinking, but when it comes to sustainability, the company has often fallen behind the times. For years, it has weathered criticism over its worker treatment, recycling and other sustainability metrics.
Recently, however, the online retailer has signaled that a change may be on the way. Dara O’Rourke, a leading expert on global supply chains, has joined the company’s sustainability team.
O’Rourke, 48, joins three other notable corporate responsibility executives at Amazon. Kara Hurst, the company’s director of worldwide sustainability and social responsibility, is the former CEO of The Sustainability Consortium; she became Amazon’s first sustainability leader in 2014. Christine Bader, author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist, joined Amazon last August. And, in December, the company hired Christina Page, who led energy and sustainability strategy at Yahoo for eight years.
It’s a dream team, of sorts. The question is, will it change Amazon?
“They’ve hired great people,” says sustainability consultant Andrew Winston. “But we really don’t know what they’re doing. Amazon is a very quiet company.”
In keeping with that reputation, Amazon didn’t make any of the executives available for interviews. Hurst and O’Rourke – neither of whom had previously been known for their reticence – declined to respond to questions via email.
Ironically, O’Rourke’s career has largely been about increasing transparency. In the 90s, he drew attention to the issue of sweatshops in developing countries by exposing what he called “exploitative and hazardous working conditions” in factories in China, Vietnam and Indonesia, notably those supplying Nike. He later co-founded Good Guide, which rates the environmental and social performance of consumer products, enabling buyers to make well-informed choices. Since 2003, he has taught environmental and labor policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dan Viederman, the chief executive of Verite, a nonprofit that aims to eliminating child labor, slavery and dangerous working conditions from global supply chains, says of O’Rourke: “He’s one of the most knowledgeable and independent people in the field.”
At Amazon, O’Rourke will be a senior principal scientist, leading a team called Sustainability Science, a spokesman for the company said. Amazon now has more than 50 people in its sustainability group, working on six teams: social responsibility, energy and environment, customer packaging experience, sustainability services, sustainability technology and sustainability science. A spokesman declined to elaborate on what each team does, but said the company expects its sustainability operation to grow significantly this year.
There’s certainly plenty to do. For years, Amazon has been mostly absent from the corporate responsibility conversation. In terms of corporate sustainability, Amazon continues to lag behind its competitors in the internet and technology industry, such as Apple and Microsoft, as well as rival brick-and-mortar retailers like Best Buy and Walmart.
Unlike most big companies, it has never published a sustainability report, nor has it reported on its carbon emissions to the CDP, an investor-backed nonprofit that has collected the most comprehensive set of global environmental data. It’s also not made itself a visible player in the environmental arena. Walmart, its biggest retail rival, has partnerships with respected nonprofits like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and aggressively works to drive efficiencies in its stores and fleet, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain. Best Buy has an industry-leading electronics recycling program. On recycling, Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, has called Amazon the “king of laggards”.
Its human rights record is harder to discern: unlike many companies that rely on global supply chains, Amazon does not disclose its overseas suppliers or publish the results of factory audits. Domestically, it is reputed to be a brutal place to work. Working conditions in its warehouses have been criticized in a series of stories in the Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper, as well as by Mother Jones and Harper’s. White collar workers are under pressure, too, according to an an investigative story last year in the New York Times that was strongly disputed by Amazon.
All of this might have been understandable during Amazon’s startup days, but the company is now 20 years old and – at last count – the seventh largest US company by market capitalization, just ahead of Johnson & Johnson and GE.
That said, Amazon has recently taken steps towards recognizing its social and environmental responsibility. It has invested in wind and solar farms, and says that 40% of its electricity will come from renewable sources by the end of 2016. “They’re now on the short list of companies that buy large amounts of renewables,” says Winston.
The company headquarters are Leed certified, and it promotes recyclable packaging. Citing a single study from 2009, it says online shopping is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional retailing.
Yet Amazon Prime, a subscription service that offers free shipping and has helped drive the company’s rapid growth, remains a problem according to some environmental advocates. “Free shipping means people don’t think about the consequences of shipping,” says Amy Larkin, a former Greenpeace executive and author of Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy. In reality, she notes, shipping isn’t “free” – it requires packaging, generates carbon emissions and may create waste – and a sustainable economy would account for those costs.
It’s not yet clear how Hurst and her team will advance Amazon’s sustainability efforts. But another technology company – Apple – has shown that getting the right people in place can turn around a company’s sustainability practices. Lisa Jackson, the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief, has worked wonders for Apple, although to do so she needed the backing of the company’s new chief executive, Tim Cook. Apple is now transparent about its supply chain, a major buyer of renewable energy and a visible advocate for climate action.
Speaking of his company’s years of inertia, Cook said that “the time for inaction has passed”. It remains to be seen if, with his new sustainability team, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is echoing the sentiment.