Jeff Bezos’ Sustainability Catch-22
By Raz Godelnik, MS SDM Co-director
Jeff Bezos had an interesting tweet for Earth Day:
Dog sledding above the Arctic Circle in Norway. Jim Lovell says it’s not that you go to heaven when you die, but “you go to heaven when you’re born.” Earth is the best planet in our solar system. We go to space to save the Earth. @BlueOrigin #NoPlanB #GradatimFerociter #EarthDay
The text was followed with a short video showing Bezos enjoying dog sledding. However, not everyone enjoyed this tweet. Comedian Sarah Silverman responded to Bezos’ tweetsaying:
Why do your employees need to be on food stamps & govt assistance? Be an example of fair payment & take the pressure off the taxpayers who are subsidizing ur lack of fair pay. I KNOW you can do it, Jeff! Don’t be like the Waltons of Walmart.
This exchange got me to rethink about Bezos. The conclusion I have reached lately that he is not only one of the richest persons in the world, but also the most important one when it comes to sustainability. In other words, he is the person with the most influence on the future of this planet, sustainability wise, which basically means he is the person with the most influence on our future—period.
Let me explain why I think this is the case and whether you should be super excited or very afraid.
First, I have to admit Bezos and his approach to sustainability have fascinated me ever since I started looking into Amazon’s sustainability issues back in 2011. In 2013, for example, I asked here if Bezos is really a long-term guy as he claims, given Amazon’s poor record on sustainability. While Amazon has improved its track record since then, I still don’t have an answer to this question.
One place to explore Bezos’ approach to sustainability is his annual letters to Amazon’s shareholders. In his most recent letter, which was published earlier this month there is a specific paragraph relating to sustainability:
Sustainability – We are committed to minimizing carbon emissions by optimizing our transportation network, improving product packaging, and enhancing energy efficiency in our operations, and we have a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy. We recently launched Amazon Wind Farm Texas, our largest wind farm yet, which generates more than 1,000,000 megawatt hours of clean energy annually from over 100 turbines. We have plans to host solar energy systems at 50 fulfillment centers by 2020, and have launched 24 wind and solar projects across the U.S. with more than 29 additional projects to come. Together, Amazon’s renewable energy projects now produce enough clean energy to power over 330,000 homes annually. In 2017 we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Frustration-Free Packaging, the first of a suite of sustainable packaging initiatives that have eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials over the past 10 years.
In addition, in 2017 alone our programs significantly reduced packaging waste, eliminating the equivalent of 305 million shipping boxes. And across the world, Amazon is contracting with our service providers to launch our first low-pollution last-mile fleet. Already today, a portion of our European delivery fleet is comprised of low-pollution electric and natural gas vans and cars, and we have over 40 electric scooters and e-cargo bikes that complete local urban deliveries.
This gets even more interesting when you go back to the 2016 letter, where Bezos writes:
One thing that’s exciting about our current scale is that we can put our inventive culture to work on moving the needle on sustainability and social issues.
These texts suggest that Bezos is aware of Amazon’s sustainability impacts and prioritizes initiatives focusing on energy consumption, packaging and transportation. We can also learn that Bezos is interested to utilize Amazon’s inventive culture to make a difference. So far, so good, but this story gets more complicated.
First, Amazon indeed takes steps to reduce its environmental footprint, but its general lack of transparency and somewhat vague goals (“have a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy”) make it more difficult to assess how substantial these steps are. Amazon, for example, still doesn’t share its carbon emissions, or its carbon reduction goals. Even its Sustainability Question Bank or sustainability pagesdon’t provide much clarity about it.
Second, Amazon’s approach to sustainability is grounded in its famous customer obsession. This is important in particular when it comes to consider how Bezos may apply its “invention culture” to make a difference. We need to acknowledge that customer needs (or their job-to-be-done) guide Amazon’s innovations – you can see it very clearly in the only invention Bezos refers to in his letters – Frustration-Free Packaging, which came to the world after Amazon received growing negative feedback from customers who were frustrated by the need “to liberate products from hermetically sealed clamshell cases and plastic-coated steel-wire ties.”
This customer-centered approach to innovation, which could be noticed this week with the introduction of the new delivery service to the trunk of your car and Echo Dot Kids Edition, as well as the discussion on the company’s plans to build home robots, is a catch-22 when it comes to sustainability. The catch is that customers care more about the ease and convenience of their shopping experience than how sustainable it is, and as long as Bezos and Amazon follow customers’ lead, Amazon will continue to focus on making our shopping experience (and home environment) more delightful, not necessarily more sustainable. The more Amazon will do it, the less sustainable shopping will probably become.
Amazon has proved itself in the last couple of years as one of the most effective forces in shaping consumer behavior, at least in this part of the hemisphere. This is not just about moving consumers from brick and mortar retail to e-commerce, but also about shaping the culture of consumption overall. There are very few companies who have reached this level of influence on our minds, which creates an incredible opportunity for Bezos to move the needle, especially given Amazon’s expected continued growth. He can make Amazon a force for good that will help us embrace sustainability into our life at scale, using Amazon’s innovation capabilities to make this transition easier and faster.
Will he do it? Will Bezos become the powerful change agent the sustainability movement so desperately needs? I wish I could say ‘yes’ – it would at least help me feel better about being an Amazon customer. However, Amazon’s very slow journey into environmental sustainability, and what seems to be even a slower journey into social sustainability (see here and here about the company’s warehouse employees) suggest that even if Bezos will somehow transform ‘customer obsession’ into ‘sustainability obsession’ it’s not going to be anytime soon.
As Bezos wrote in his 2018 letter to Amazon’s shareholders: “Used well, our scale enables us to build services for customers that we could otherwise never even contemplate.” I agree with Bezos, but also want to ask him to consider Paul Ehrlich’s warning that “overpopulation and overconsumption are driving us over the edge.” Even if consumers do not see the edge, it is Bezos’ responsibility to do so, especially as someone who prides himself to be a leader who is solely focusing on long-term value creation.