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Amazon Employees Embrace Activism, Echoing Peers in Silicon Valley

Matt Day
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Amazon Employees Embrace Activism, Echoing Peers in Silicon Valley

(Bloomberg) -- The employee activism that has roiled Silicon Valley in recent years has arrived at Amazon.com Inc.

On the agenda at the company’s annual meeting in Seattle on Wednesday: a climate-change proposal supported by some 7,600 employees. It calls on Amazon to write a public report detailing preparations for climate-related disruptions and plans to reduce dependence on the fossil fuels blamed for much of the Earth’s warming.

Amazon opposes the resolution, citing ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of packaging it ships to consumers as well as investments in wind, solar energy and other alternatives. Yet two months after the proposal was filed, the company disclosed an initiative to eliminate carbon output from half of its customer deliveries by 2030. 

“I have no doubt that was because of us,” says Weston Fribley, an Amazon software engineer who helped organize the resolution and like other employees is a shareholder by virtue of his stock grants. Fribley, however, says the company’s response doesn’t go far enough to withdraw the proposal.

In the past two years, employee activism has forced tech giants to reverse course on corporate initiatives. After employees at Google raised concerns about its bid for military contracts, the Alphabet Inc. search giant backed out of a U.S. Defense Department drone program and decided not to bid on a contract to build cloud services for the Pentagon. Employees of Microsoft Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc. pressured executives about their companies’ dealings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Emboldened Amazon employees have taken on other issues, recently firing off an internal letter critical of their employer’s push into controversial facial recognition technology. Amazon’s Rekognition software, which is being used by a sheriff’s office in Oregon to identify suspects, is also on Amazon shareholders’ ballots in the form of one proposal asking for an external report on the risks of the technology, and another that would ban its sale to governments.  By coincidence, Wednesday is also  the date of a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on facial recognition technology’s impact on civil rights. 

Amazon employees in past years have also pushed for change on human resources issues like benefits for transgender employees, and back-up daycare for parents. But the current climate change campaign is the rare instance when workers at the technology giant’s headquarters have taken a public stand for change inside the company.

“We’ve seen instances at other companies of employees taking a stand on something, but not in putting their names behind it, not in these numbers,” Fribley says.

One employee not involved in the climate issue said the effort has emboldened others inside Amazon to agitate for change. Amazon’s internal process for workplace and company policy shifts can be slow, and leave workers feeling ignored, the employee says. The climate change group took a cowboy approach without facing repercussions, sending a message that employees can be more outspoken about Amazon than most are comfortable doing, the employee said. 

Amazon executives asked the employees to back down, both before and after announcing the “Shipment Zero” carbon cutting initiative. At the second meeting, Kara Hurst, Amazon’s sustainability chief, who oversees some 200 people working on everything from emissions-tracking models to installation of solar panels on warehouse roofs, basically said the company was working on it, Fribley says.

A report earlier this year by Gizmodo on an aggressive marketing campaign by Amazon’s cloud-computing division to sell its wares to the oil and gas industry raised doubts among some employees on how far along that process was.

“This shows why we needed a comprehensive plan,” Fribley says. Amazon’s approach to sustainability “can’t be a patchwork of programs, countered by programs in other areas of the company.”

Amazon, in a statement outlining its sustainability initiatives, portrayed its work on the matter as more comprehensive. “We have launched several major and impactful programs and are working hard to integrate this approach fully across Amazon,” the company said. 

Shareholder advisory firms Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis recommended investors get behind the resolution. Both say Amazon’s disclosures on sustainability issues lag behind large peers in technology and retail.

The employees say climate change isn’t an abstract concept, for them, or the company. Their resolution cites evidence that extreme weather events are already threatening Amazon’s operations, from record rainfall in Australia that knocked an Amazon Web Services data center offline, to wildfires in and around Washington State that made the air in Amazon’s Seattle hometown hazardous at times last summer.

Rebecca Sheppard, who works in Amazon’s air cargo operations, commutes to Seattle by ferry from nearby Bainbridge Island, and recalls coughing up black particles after one particularly bad day. “There’s not a more post-apocalyptic image than being surrounded by smoke and not able to breathe outside,” she says.

Amazon encourages employees to not be shy about proposing big, creative ideas, she adds. But if those proposals don’t fit with top goals articulated by Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos and his lieutenants, they aren’t likely to become a priority.

Sheppard’s hope is the employee groundswell causes Amazon brass to bump climate change up on their list of priorities.

“The enthusiasm is overwhelming,” Sheppard says. “If the resolution doesn’t pass, we’ll be back.”

--With assistance from Spencer Soper.

To contact the author of this story: Matt Day in Seattle at mday63@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Robin Ajello at rajello@bloomberg.net

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