by Alex Garland
In 2019, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made a slew of promises regarding the company’s Climate Pledge, which, according to its website, aims “to build a cross-sector community of companies, organizations, individuals, and partners working together to address the climate crisis and solve the challenges of decarbonizing our economy.”
Bezos stated, “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.” The Climate Pledge claims to be taking significant strides toward reaching Amazon’s promised “net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 — 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.”
Some say Amazon’s efforts are not enough. As climate issues become mainstream, some large corporations are accused of greenwashing, which the Natural Resources Defense Council defines as “the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental benefits of a product or practice.”
With that in mind, it’s important to understand the language used by corporations when discussing their climate pledges and promises. Both “carbon-neutral” and “net-zero emissions” are terms companies commonly use to describe their efforts in reducing and balancing their carbon footprints. While “net-zero carbon” signifies that no carbon emissions were produced in the first place, both “carbon-neutral” and “net-zero emissions” initiatives can include offsetting the total carbon emissions generated, which may not actually reduce emissions.
Amazon’s timeline for net-zero has also shifted. In 2019, Amazon committed to “Shipment Zero,” promising 50% of all shipments would be “net zero by 2030.” Recently, it has come to light that Amazon quietly abandoned its promise to make its shipments more environmentally friendly by 2030; without public announcement, its new stated target date is 2040.
Activists Urge Amazon to Fulfill Its Climate Commitments
As global temperatures increase, so do the numbers and demographics of those pushing for corporate responsibility in the need to address climate change — and sooner rather than later. On May 31, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice and Amazon’s Remote Advocacy community leaders jointly led a walkout of hundreds of Amazon employees, demanding more flexible remote work and that Amazon address its climate impacts. And one week prior, on May 23, international climate advocacy organization Stand.earth introduced its new joint #DeliverChange campaign with the Clean Mobility Collective (CMC) targeted at “last-mile” shipping, or the transportation of product from the delivery hub to the customer. A group led by youth activists launched the campaign by delivering their demands to the Amazon HQ in downtown Seattle. More than 50 activists descended on the HQ, carrying empty cardboard boxes, signs, and banners, demanding Amazon fulfill its responsibility as a “global leader” when it comes to climate change. Their demands are simple: 100% zero-emission last-mile deliveries by 2030.
Youth activists made up the majority of the event at the Amazon HQ, accompanied by guardians, friends, and local climate activists of all ages. “Amazon executives are making short-sighted decisions without care for the well-being of youth who will be burdened with their pollution,” said Zubin Ace, 12. “Amazon’s lack of leadership today is an injustice to the leaders of tomorrow.”
In a press conference after the event, youth climate activist Ruby Webb, 14, told the crowd, “We demand Amazon publicly commit to zero-emissions last-mile delivery by 2030.”
Part of Amazon’s plan to “decarbonize our economy” was an investment in the electric vehicle company Rivian. According to Amazon’s website in September 2019, “The $440 million investment will accelerate the production of electric vehicles critical to reducing emissions from transportation.” It announced a large order of 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian, with the goal of delivering packages to customers in 2021 and increasing the rollout of “all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030 — saving 4 million metric tons of carbon per year by 2030.”
Amazon and Rivian introduced the first batch of electric delivery vans in July of 2022, marking what seemed to be a significant milestone in their journey toward a greener delivery fleet. With over 3,000 vans currently in operation, Amazon presents an image of progress. But these electric vehicles, thought by some as a major solution to Amazon’s carbon emissions, only scratch the surface when considering the company’s massive delivery network, warehouses, data centers, and overall environmental impact. While Amazon has its electric vans operating in more than 500 U.S. cities, including New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Los Angeles, these cities represent only a fraction of the country where Amazon delivers its billions of packages.
Although Amazon highlights the innovative features of its custom electric vans, such as enhanced safety measures and embedded technology for streamlined delivery processes, it also overlooks the broader environmental concerns associated with its operations. The carbon emissions generated during the manufacturing, charging, and maintenance of these electric vehicles are regularly criticized by environmental activists as not being included in the calculations.
Activist Xavina Walbert, a recent first-generation graduate from the University of Redlands, expressed her concerns about the impact of low-quality jobs and poor air quality on her family and community at a press conference after the #DeliverChange event. She demanded that Amazon prioritize zero emissions and pointed out the discrepancy between Amazon’s climate rhetoric and its operations in her community.
Walbert firmly stated, “On behalf of my community, respect our livelihoods, respect the air that we breathe, and deliver on zero emissions, and if not, expect to see me again, because we are not stopping until Amazon does what we need it to do.”
The deployment of a limited number of electric delivery vans from Rivian also pales in comparison with Amazon’s continued reliance on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. The company’s fleet still predominantly consists of traditional delivery vehicles.
“Leading delivery companies like Amazon are failing to live up to their promised 100% zero-emission vehicle deployment,” warns a joint investigation conducted by the CMC and Stand.earth Research Group (SRG). The report raises concerns about the companies’ reliance on fossil fuels for e-commerce deliveries and its lack of transparency regarding last-mile emissions.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation currently accounts for 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, making it the largest contributor. The CMC/SRG report, titled “Cost of Convenience: Revealing the hidden climate and health impacts of the global e-commerce-driven parcel delivery industry through 2030,” notes that emissions in this sector are projected to significantly increase by 2030. The annual parcel volume “could more than double from over 315 billion parcels in 2022 to potentially 800 billion parcels per year.”
The report reveals a significant statistic: Amazon and other e-commerce companies are on track to emit the carbon equivalent of up to 44 coal plants annually. According to Stand.earth, to counteract this impact, we would need to plant over one billion trees annually and let them grow for a decade. Alternatively, an area larger than the entire state of Arizona, equivalent to over 75 million acres of U.S. forests per year, would be necessary to sequester the greenhouse gases emitted by current last-mile deliveries.
Devyani Singh, an investigative researcher at SRG, calls on e-commerce companies, particularly Amazon, to take further action and achieve 100% zero-emission deliveries by 2030. She expresses concern that Amazon’s plans, aiming for net-zero emissions by 2040, are insufficient and delayed. Singh also highlights the crucial need for greater transparency from Amazon and other last-mile delivery companies in terms of their “emissions and progress toward transitioning to clean transportation.”
When asked about the youth protest at the Amazon Headquarters, a representative from Amazon PR said in an email with the Emerald, “Since we co-founded the Climate Pledge in 2019, we’ve grown to have more than 400 signatories join us in our commitment to reach net-zero carbon by 2040. We’re actively working to reduce emissions to reach net-zero carbon by 2040. Some actions will have immediate carbon savings, while others will take years to demonstrate results — and we will continue to invest in both proven and new science-backed solutions to help solve this crisis.”
The representative continued by giving examples of “progress since co-founding the Pledge,” including its work to power 85% of its operations with renewable energy, with a goal of 100% by 2030; its fleet of electric delivery vehicles; its commitment that Amazon Web Services (AWS) data centers will “return more water to communities than what they consume by 2030”; and its reduction of the weight of packaging per shipment by 38%.
While Amazon can blame a falling stock market, inflation, and supply chain issues for challenges it’s faced on meeting its Climate Pledge goals in regard to last-mile delivery, the responsibility may ultimately rest on the shoulders of Amazon’s leadership. The future will show whether this mega-corporation will be a true “global leader” that takes responsibility for its part in climate change.
This Project is funded in part by the City of Seattle’s Environmental Justice Fund.
Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. With a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning from the University of North Texas, Alex spent his early professional career as a GIS analyst for FEMA. Follow him on Twitter.
📸 Featured Image: Youth protesting at Amazon’s headquarters in downtown Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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