Shareholders are critical to holding Amazon accountable on sustainability
While all 15 investor-backed resolutions raised during Amazon’s recent shareholder meeting died on the vine, there was a glimmer of hope with at least one. Almost half of the shareholders voted in favor of calling on the company to address its growing plastic packaging problem — the highest level of support among the resolutions considered and among all Amazon shareholder resolutions voted on to date. Shareholders are rightfully demanding more from Amazon’s leaders when it comes to sustainability — and their fight must continue.
The resolution comes in the wake of an eye-opening report from Oceana, which found that Amazon produced 599 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2020, a 29 percent increase since 2019. This plastic packaging waste, in the form of air pillows, would circle our planet more than 600 times. Amazon’s shoppers are worried about such trends, with close to 90 percent of customers concerned about plastic pollution.
Amazon’s deleterious environmental impact extends beyond waste generated from packaging. Last year, 600 Amazon employees signed a statement calling on the company to address pollution that is concentrated in communities of color. The retailer’s sweeping warehouse empire tends to extend in ZIP codes that have a higher percentage of people of color — unlike its corporate offices, situated in suburban oases such as Palo Alto, California, and Arlington, Virginia.
The company has still yet to fully come clean, requesting that its Carbon Disclosure Project report not be shared publicly.
Amazon has no problem touting certain numbers surrounding its sustainability commitments — especially if those numbers are tweaked in a way to portray the company in a positive light. For instance, Amazon will only take responsibility for the full climate impact of products with an Amazon brand label — amounting to a mere 1 percent of its online sales. That means the full environmental consequences — the life-cycle of use and disposal — of many products purchased on its vast third-party marketplace are left unaccounted.
Only after being shamed by obtaining the F grade it clearly deserved did Amazon begin to disclose its footprints to the Carbon Disclosure Project, a global sustainability initiative. The company has still yet to fully come clean, requesting that its report not be shared publicly, unlike the majority of companies facing heat from investors for environmentally unsound practices. Even Amazon’s latest sustainability report tucked the disappointing information about its growing carbon footprint — an 18 percent increase from last year — behind almost 100 pages of glossy tidbits about their sustainability efforts.
Although some Amazon shareholders may feel a sense of hopelessness following the recent sustainability proposal’s failure, they are on the right track. As one commentator noted after the event, even a proposal that hits just 20 percent or 30 percent approval sends a clear message to the board that an issue must be addressed. A growing number of shareholders care about ESG and so do analysts who may downgrade stocks due to the risks that investors’ proposals will expose.
Perhaps without the financial presence of Amazon’s former CEO, Jeff Bezos, the plastics reporting resolution may have had a shot at passing. Bezos, the company’s largest shareholder, owns at least 10 percent of the company’s shares, giving him the ability to shape the company long after his departure from active corporate leadership.
However, there is no indication that Bezos’s influence will be any less significant in the near term. That makes the fight from Amazon shareholders even more necessary and confirms why they must continue to ensure the company’s sustainability commitments are not just empty promises.
There is an ongoing and necessary sea change in how Americans are viewing Amazon — especially around ESG — and the company’s shareholders have an indispensable role to play in this shift.