Amazon has talked a big climate game while helping the very industries fuelling catastrophe. And now, it’s threatened employees who have publicly called on the company to do better without permission.
A group of employees organised under the name Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AEJC) have been pushing the company to flesh out its climate plan and, in an open letter signed by more than 8,700 employees, use its heavyweight status to “shift entire industries, inspire global action on climate, and lead on the issue of our lifetimes.” CEO Jeff Bezos refused to even listen to them at last year’s shareholder meeting. But in an escalation, Amazon HR threatened to fire some of the most outspoken members of the group for speaking with the press about their efforts.
The violations stem from speaking with the Washington Post for an October 10 article that covered, among other things, Amazon’s weak climate pledge and commitment to keep working with extractive industries fuelling the climate crisis. Maren Costa, a principal user-experience designer at Amazon, and Jamie Kowalski, an Amazon software development engineer, say they both received emails for speaking with the Post. Earther reviewed a copy of the email sent in late November, putting the employees on notice for violating the company’s external communication policy and warning that “[f]uture violations of the policy may result in formal corrective action, up to and including termination of your employment with Amazon.”
The external communication policy in question—which was also reviewed by Earther—was updated on September 5, a day after employees sent an internal email about walking out as part of the massive September 20 global climate strike. While Earther was unable to review the policy before the update, the new policy says, “[t]here must be a business justification for the communication, and it must have prior support from your manager and the BP whose business is primarily impacted.” The policy goes on to note that the company’s public relations department has to review all requests and it could “take up to two weeks for a response and/or approval.”
“Now is a time when we need to have Communications policies that let us speak honestly about our company’s role in the climate crisis,” Costa said in a statement. “This is not the time to shoot the messengers. This is not the time to silence those who are speaking out.”
An Amazon spokesperson told the Washington Post that its policy “is not new and we believe is similar to other large companies.”
Rather than telling its employees to shut up or risk termination, Amazon should perhaps spend more time talking about what it’s going to do to address the climate crisis. The 2020s will be a crucial decade in climate action, and Amazon has the potential (for better or worse) to be a driving force one way or the other.
The company’s cloud computing software, machine learning, and other resources are also used around the world, including by major oil companies. Cutting off access would be a huge blow to those companies and their efforts to extract more oil at a time when we need to be leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Amazon has explicitly pledged to keep working with those companies, though, and deals to do so have kept humming right along. Getting the company to change course would be a huge win for the climate.
In addition, Amazon has a massive supply chain and decarbonizing it could pay dividends for the climate. The company’s climate plan aims for a goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, but it’s light on details of how it will get there and the role carbon offsets could play. And in areas where it is clearer, it relies on some wishful thinking like putting 100,000 electric delivery vans on the road by 2024. Filling in more details and building in more accountability would go a long way toward Amazon showing it’s serious.
The fact that the company has even set a carbon neutrality goal is largely due to the pressure of employees and not the kindness of Jeff Bezos’ heart. Solving the climate crisis is an all-hands-on-deck endeavour, one that requires accountability and leadership. From Amazon’s actions, it appears that leadership is in short supply at the top, and so pressure and leadership is coming from employees themselves who are turning the screws on a company that could do with feeling a little heat. As Rebecca Shepherd, a member of AECJ told Gizmodo when the company announced its climate plan:
“Amazon as a company asks for us to innovate, to disrupt, to think big, and to look at the numbers. I don’t think anyone has demonstrated these core values better than Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. I believe that Jeff Bezos sees that and that is what prompted him to shift directions this morning, but we are far from done. This is one step of many and Amazon also tells us plans mean sh** if we don’t deliver results.”
Earther has reached out to Amazon for comment and will update this post if we hear back.