Amazon Workers Pressure Jeff Bezos to Make Online Shopping More Environmentally Friendly. Here’s How

September 19, 2019, 4:30 PM UTC

Employees from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all plan to stage walkouts on Friday as part of the Global Climate Strike spearheaded by teen activist Greta Thunberg. Employees are demanding that the companies improve their response to the looming threat of climate change.

Of the three tech giants, Amazon faces perhaps the biggest challenge in meeting employee demands: Its huge e-commerce business is inherently energy-hungry. But just how big is the climate impact of online shopping – and what can Amazon do to reduce it?

Is Online Shopping Destroying the Environment?

Amazon undoubtedly has a massive climate footprint: It sells and delivers more than 10 million items daily to Prime members alone. It controls nearly half of all U.S. e-commerce, and 5% of the entire retail market. That makes Amazon’s choices uniquely important, especially as e-commerce continues to grow.

That growth may actually be a better scenario for the environment than a world without e-commerce. Studies by both Carnegie Mellon University and at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics found that, viewed narrowly, delivering an online purchase has about half the carbon impact of transportation for traditional shopping. That’s largely because shoppers no longer have to get in their cars just to browse, and also because shipping many packages at once is more efficient than each shopper driving to the store.

On the other hand, those benefits decline or even disappear when customers choose faster shipping, one of the main appeals of Amazon’s Prime program. That’s because faster shipping makes it harder to group purchases together, which reduces trips, and can rely more on carbon-heavy delivery methods like air freight. The benefits of e-commerce may be further offset by congestion as more trucks tangle traffic, increasing emissions.

And according to Miguel Jaller, co-director of the Sustainable Freight Research Center at the University of California at Davis, Amazon’s convenience and low prices may be inherently bad for the environment, thanks to what’s known as the ‘efficiency paradox.’

“We become so good at something that the prices are so low that consumers start buying more and more,” he says. “And in the end, we are less sustainable.”

What Can Amazon Do?

Jaller says Amazon’s size gives it a unique responsibility for the overall sustainability of online shopping. “Whatever they do, either good or bad, will have a huge impact in the overall system.”

Amazon has already committed to making half of its shipments carbon neutral by 2030. But for the 1,400 employees who now say they’ll join the walkout, that’s not good enough – they’re demanding that Amazon aim for zero emissions across the business by 2030.

The group wants electric delivery vehicles rolled out first in areas where Amazon has large operations. Sarah Read, a Prime Video engineer and spokesperson for employees joining the walkout, points to California’s Inland Empire outside of Los Angeles, where Amazon has at least 14 fulfillment centers.

“There are thousands of diesel vehicles going in and out of the warehouses,” says Read, “And the Inland Empire community has higher rates of respiratory disease and asthma because of fossil fuel powered vehicles.”

Jaller says Amazon has already missed a major chance to do better. It is rapidly building its own delivery infrastructure, a unique opportunity to start fresh with earth-friendly vehicles. But instead, in September of last year, Amazon bought 20,000 diesel-powered vans for its network.

“I think they should have bought something less pollutant,” says Jaller. “Or gone with zero emission vehicles. The technology for those vehicles is proven.”

Amazon now appears to have reversed course, and has committed to order 100,000 electric vans starting in 2021.

Jaller appreciates Amazon’s recent efforts to nudge customers to select slower shipping options, including “No-Rush” incentives and the Amazon Day program, which encourages grouping shipments together.

But he also sees room for improvement there – Amazon could, for instance, show shoppers the environmental impact of their choices when they check out. That, of course, could be a tough business decision, if it made customers think twice about the fast shipping that is at the core of Amazon’s appeal.

In comments responding to the planned walkout, Amazon emphasized numerous other steps it has taken to reduce its impact, including reducing the packaging that can make up nearly half of a delivery’s climate impact. Amazon says it has eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials and avoided shipping 500 million boxes through its various initiatives.

It has also installed solar panels on many of its fulfillment centers – including those in the Inland Empire – and is building more solar and wind infrastructure to power both fulfillment centers and its Amazon Web Services cloud computing service. (Workers walking out on Friday have other complaints about the climate impact of AWS, and particularly want Amazon to stop aggressively pitching its cloud services to oil companies).

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice acknowledges that Amazon is working to make e-commerce and its other services more earth-friendly – the group just wants even more aggressive moves.

“We want Amazon to take ownership over its impact, to become a bold leader in the space, and influence the rest of the industry,” says Read. “We want Amazon to hold itself to the same high standards that we as employees are held to.”

Update 9/19/19: This story has been updated to reflect Amazon’s announcement of new sustainability commitments.

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