The toll Amazon’s ruthless efficiency has taken on its workers has been well-documented at this point. But a new investigation by Consumer Reports reveals the degree to which Amazon’s warehouses disproportionately affect entire communities of colour as well, and how all company’s excess pollutants could be worsening these communities’ health.
The report found that most of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses are in neighbourhoods with a greater share of residents of colour compared to the median neighbourhood in the same metro area. Specifically, of the 722 Amazon warehouses analysed, 508 of them were in neighbourhoods with more non-white residents. Nearly 60% of the company’s warehouses are also located in neighbourhoods with a greater share of low-income residents than those in their metro area’s median neighbourhood.
Amazon — like many other distribution companies — often sets up shop in these areas because they are zoned for industrial use, which makes land cheaper. But while other major retailers like Walmart and Costco also tend to favour these areas, they can’t compare to Amazon in terms of the sheer massive scale of its operations. The warehouses are hubs for vehicle activity, with trucks and vans going to and fro at all hours. That means residents in places where Amazon warehouses face higher levels of pollution.
Those same trucks, sometimes frantically bobbing and weaving through traffic to meet Amazon’s delivery time goals, have caused other residents to express feeling unsafe driving in their own home neighbourhood. Consumer Reports combined census data and EPA data with publicly available data about the warehouses.
“They get more traffic, air pollution, traffic jams, and pedestrian safety problems, but they don’t receive their fair share of the benefits that accrue from having the retail nearby,” Centre for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health Director Sacoby Wilson told Consumer Reports. “You can treat this pattern as a form of environmental racism.”
Indeed, other communities reap benefits from Amazon, whether its people who use the company to place online orders or shoppers at Amazon-owned at Whole Foods. Consumer Reports found the latter tend to pop up in neighbourhoods that are generally richer and whiter.
The disparities aren’t likely to go away as Amazon expands its empire at a rapid clip. The company opened almost 300 new facilities and warehouses in 2020 alone. For context, in the four years prior, Amazon had opened up an average of just about 75 new warehouses per year.
“Our communities are being sacrificed in the name of economic development,” José Acosta-Córdova, a member of Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organisation, told Consumer Reports.
All around the country, research has shown that communities of colour tend to be disproportionately subjected to polluted air, which increased the incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases in those areas. A paper published in Science last year determined that the most polluted places in the country 35 years ago are still some of the most polluted today. That’s despite the fact the U.S. overall particulate matter levels lowered by about 70% between 1981 and 2016. Racist zoning and lending practices have also left communities of colour exposed to more flooding and extreme heat.
All that happened well before Amazon came into existence. But the company’s new armada of warehouses could potentially reinforce these pre-existing problems. It will be hard to pin down the exact impact, though, as no agency or other group is currently measuring emissions near the warehouses, Consumer Reports notes. Warehouses are also generally not required to get emissions permits that account for trucks, though some communities are starting to change that. Earlier this year, an air quality district in Southern California voted for tighter restrictions on e-commerce warehouses.
Amazon itself has pointed to its own recent goal of deploying 100,000 electric delivery vans by 2030. But some activists say that’s not enough, and want to see similar commitments made for heavy-duty vehicles. Company spokesperson Maria Boschetti also told Consumer Reports that “Amazon is committed to using its scale for good and being not only a good employer, but a good community partner in the towns and cities in which we operate as well.”
In the meantime, community organisations are looking at ways to get a clearer sense of the warehouses’ potential health impact by measuring residents’ exposure to particulate matter. In Chicago, organisers have are also installing more than 100 local monitors to measure the local air quality to provide more accountability.