More than 3,500 Amazon Employees Urge Bold Action on Climate Change
SEATTLE — Employees at big tech companies have pushed back against their employers for working with the military and law enforcement offices, and demanded better treatment of women and minorities.
Now, thousands of them are also taking on climate change.
This week, more than 3,500 Amazon employees called on the company to rethink how it addresses and contributes to a warming planet. The action is the largest employee-driven movement on climate change to take place in the influential tech industry.
The workers say the company needs to make firm commitments to reduce its carbon footprint across its vast operations, not make piecemeal or vague announcements. And they say that Amazon should stop offering custom cloud-computing services that help the oil and gas industry find and extract more fossil fuels.
The goal for Amazon’s leaders and employees is “that climate change is something they think about whenever a business decision is being made,” said Rajit Iftikhar, a software engineer in Amazon’s retail business. “We want to make Amazon a better company. It is a natural extension of that.”
The letter adds support for a new tactic among activist tech workers: using the stock they receive as compensation to agitate for change. Like other shareholders, they can file a resolution urging a particular corporate change that investors vote on at a company’s annual meeting. Historically, this approach has been used by outside activist investors, not as leverage by employees.
The Amazon employees signing the letter, who made their names public, are pushing Amazon to approve a shareholder resolution that would force the company to develop a plan to address its carbon footprint. The resolution was filed by more than two dozen current and former employees late last year, and it could come up for a vote next month.
It is rare for tech employees, even some of the most activist ones, to release their names publicly criticizing their employers. While thousands walked out at Google over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims, for example, few names were connected to the effort.
“It’s exactly what Amazon has taught me to be: bold, audacious, and tackle big problems,” said Maren Costa, a principal user-experience designer who has been with the company for almost 15 years.
Amazon has more than 65,000 corporate and tech employees working in the United States. More people signed the letter than Amazon has employed at any of its individual U.S. offices outside of Seattle and the Bay Area.
Amazon spokesman Sam Kennedy did not comment directly on the letter but said the company is addressing climate change in many ways. “Earlier this year, we announced that we will share our companywide carbon footprint, along with related goals and programs,” he said in a statement. “We also announced Shipment Zero, our vision to make all Amazon shipments net-zero carbon, with 50 percent of all shipments net zero by 2030.”
More than its other tech peers, Amazon is particularly vulnerable to criticism about its carbon footprint. It ships millions of items large and small. The data centers that run its cloud operations need power to stay cool, and its cloud offerings and artificial intelligence put it in touch with customers in big businesses, including the energy industry.
Amazon in 2014 announced a “long-term commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage” for its data centers, but it did not set a deadline. On Monday, it said that it was planning three new wind farms. It was its first announcement of a new renewable energy project for its data centers in more than two years, even as its cloud business more than doubled in that time.
The workers are urging Amazon to adopt a much more ambitious effort. In late November and early December, 16 current and former Amazon employees filed shareholder proposals. And once they went public with their campaign, a dozen more joined, including Chris Page, who used to run Amazon’s sustainability work.
In January, a group of the workers met with Amazon’s sustainability team and investor relations officials to discuss their proposal.
“It was clear to me that we didn’t have a companywide plan that could address climate change at the scale and urgency that we need,” Ms. Costa said. “That team didn’t have the resources to do the job that I think they know they need to do.”
Mr. Kennedy, the company spokesman, said, “In operations alone, we have over 200 scientists, engineers and product designers dedicated exclusively to inventing new ways to leverage our scale for the good of customers and the planet.”
The employees worked to build more internal support. In mid-February, their email list grew from 600 to more than 1,200 in about a day, said Emily Cunningham, a designer who has worked at Amazon since 2013. “We don’t have a lot of culture of dissent at Amazon, but it resonated.”
A few days later, on Presidents’ Day, Amazon announced the Shipment Zero initiative. Amazon also said in a blog post that it would disclose its companywide carbon footprint this year.
The next day, Amazon contacted the people behind the resolution to meet again. The company wanted to “ask about willingness to withdraw in light of the disclosures in the blog and those to come later this year,” Mark Hoffman, a top lawyer at Amazon, wrote to them in an email.
Shipment Zero had been in the works for a while. But to the activists, the timing felt like a victory.
“It was a direct response to the pressure that this small group of people have been applying,” Ms. Costa said. “It gave me hope that we could make a difference.”
Then the activists saw an article in Gizmodo, a technology news site, that outlined how Amazon’s cloud computing division was building special offerings for oil and gas companies. On its website, Amazon says its customers include BP and Royal Dutch Shell, and its products can “find oil faster,” “recover more oil” and “reduce the cost per barrel.”
In a second meeting with Amazon, the workers raised the oil industry connections with the company’s sustainability team; its members did not seem to be aware of the business, according to several employees at the meeting.
“That really showed us Amazon is not taking climate change seriously if the highest levels of the sustainability team are not even aware that we have an oil and gas business,” said Ms. Cunningham, who was at the meeting.
In mid-March, Amazon informed the activists that the company’s board would recommend that shareholders oppose the resolution. “The board agrees that planning for potential disruptions posed by climate change and reducing companywide dependence on fossil fuels are important,” the formal recommendation said. “However, the board believes that Amazon is already doing this.”
So the employees put together the public letter, which outlines six principles they think should guide a plan, including “ending all custom solutions specifically designed for oil and gas extraction and exploration.”
They began sharing the letter in small circles on Monday, and then more broadly on Tuesday. By midafternoon, more than 2,000 employees had signed on. On Wednesday morning, they released the letter with more than 3,500 Amazon employees putting their name behind the cause.
Amazon typically sends out the proxy ballot for investors to vote on shareholder resolutions in mid-April.