Massive online retailer poses unexpected environmental consequences
When Jeff Bezos started the company Amazon in 1994, he originally wanted to call it “Cadabra,” in reference to the latter half of the well-known incantation “Abracadabra”. In those days, the online commerce company barely managed to qualify as a business, much less a legacy of the magic phrase. Stationed in Bezos’s garage, it did not bear adequate resemblance to the magnificent river it was ultimately named after. Before too long, however, Amazon would gain worldwide acclaim as a revolutionary way to shop through the Internet. Decades later, the company has still retained the magical qualities suggested by its original name, thanks to its incredible innovation and vision. With a market value of $370 billion, the abundance of retail opportunities combined with Bezos’s business acumen, indeed, seemed to be nothing short of sorcery.
Though Amazon is explosively prosperous, the company’s success does not come without consequences. Several of Amazon’s policies raise concern about the company’s effect on the world, especially in an environmental sense. This is not to say that Amazon has completely neglected any sustainable practices. Greenpeace reported in 2015 that Amazon purchases its electricity from a large wind farm in North Carolina. This effort is reminiscent of those already made by other net-centric companies like Facebook and Apple. In addition, Amazon has enhanced its sustainability team with global supply chain experts and energy strategists, even though these executives do not make themselves available for interviews. Amazon has also announced that over the course of the next three years, the company will install solar energy on the roofs of 50 warehouses across the world, projected to provide 80 percent of power to sites in California and Maryland. The company plans to build two wind farms in Texas and Ohio, respectively, adding to the farms utilized in Indiana.
In addition, last year Amazon expressed its support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which advocates for businesses to invest in eco-friendly measures to help combat climate change. However, the implications of fast shipping and lack of information around energy usage especially pose concern. An examination of the company’s practices offers a clearer picture of how Amazon is constructed to uphold, or disregard, consideration for the planet while running a business.
Amazon’s primary environmental grievance is its lack of transparency about energy use. Many companies are diligent in releasing information on energy usage; when the Carbon Disclosure Project released their annual scoring of companies, media giants like Apple and Microsoft were credited as A-listers. Facebook and Google are also taking notable strides towards renewable energy and participate in releasing data about sustainability to the public.
However, Amazon continually receives an ‘F’ grade in their annual scoring due to lack of information around energy measurements. This includes refusing to evaluate quantities of carbon, electricity and other materials. The Guardian contends that Amazon is not obligated to release this data; however, their resistance to do so deviates from the norm of many other companies. Despite continual hounding for answers by the Carbon Disclosure Project and other such organizations, Amazon will not budge to disclose, improve, or perhaps even monitor its energy usage.
Publications such as The Huffington Post and The Guardian have often reached out to Amazon for comment on the continued restriction of information, only to be denied communication. This has been a continual point of contempt with environmentally conscious groups, and begs the question as to why such a large company is so hesitant to release anything approaching a sustainability report. Although Amazon has made announcements to use renewable energy to power the company, their lack of transparency creates a great divide between them and other companies who have made similar commitments to transparent business practices. Unfortunately this also ultimately allows consumers to ignore Amazon’s impact on the environment.
Nature Means Business founder Amy Larkin said the withholding of information is one of the most dangerous aspects of Amazon’s environmental policy. By keeping customers in the dark about the production of the company, Amazon perpetuates an ignorance surrounding the way we shop, and instead promotes harmful habits in the quest for instant gratification, Larkin said.
“Amazon has reinforced our worst inclinations around thinking what we buy has no consequences. Our impact is invisible to us, and Amazon should not be proliferating an illusion. Until Amazon shows what it is really using in terms of energy and resources, we as consumers cannot take responsibility for our actions,” Larkin said.
By upholding the immediate fulfillment of online retail, the success of the company is built around offering services that allow customers to ignore the implications of their shopping.
An appealing feature of Amazon comes in the form of Amazon Prime, a membership program which allows customers to enjoy two day shipping as well as unlimited streaming for a number of select movies and TV shows. Online shopping in general presents several benefits that are conscious and benign. A study in 2009 by Carnegie Mellon concludes that online shopping uses less energy and has a smaller footprint in comparison to driving to the store for purchases. In addition, Prime’s online streaming allows people to cut down on the packaging they would use otherwise in certain cases, such as renting a movie from Redbox. Although there are some perks, shipping across a two day period proves to be problematic in several areas.
Amazon’s two-day window for delivery complicates the shipping process. This means that shippers may have to take a less conservative approach when consumer demands need to be met, according to the Mother Nature Network. This includes using the quickest and easiest route to beat out the time constraint. When customer expectations are hinged on the limits of a specific time frame, this gives Amazon less freedom to design an efficient route and more likely to send out trucks half empty, or take whatever measures are necessary to ensure orders are delivered on time. Additionally, despite the use of environmentally friendly packaging, Amazon has been known to ship small items in oversized boxes, which also adds up to waste, although this is not necessarily unique to Amazon in particular.
Amazon again separates itself from environmental responsibility with the lack of opportunities for electronic recycling. Instead of following in the footsteps of Best Buy, which takes back electronics at no charge according to The Guardian, Amazon does not employ such practices. New Bay Media reported in 2016 that Amazon is the second largest retailer of electronics in the world; with no plan to recycle excuse customers from thinking about the environmental impact of improper electronic disposal, including lead contamination and soil pollution.
Miguel A. Jaller Martelo, professor of environmental engineering with research interest in supply chain management and sustainable transportation at University of California Davis, said that blame is difficult to assign in terms of Amazon’s environmental shortcomings. Online retail in general, Martelo said, facilitates shopping a way that simply satisfies demand: obstacles like store proximity and hours of operation are eradicated for an extremely accessible venue for retail.
Further, Amazon should not be penalized for responding to an economic opportunity. “No one forces us to buy — some online retailers offer a great service, one that is reliable and fast. I would blame us first. In the end, we are the ones who make the decision to buy.”
Martelo said that because shopping is such a social pastime, online shopping will never totally eclipse the lure of a mall or boutique.
“Online shopping is not likely to completely substitute shopping trips,” says Martelo, “because of their association with recreation, social, and other personal activities.” In the meantime, Martelo said that it is valuable and conscientious to be smart about shopping both online and off.
Rather than antagonize the company, globally renowned sustainable business advocate Andrew Winston also advises mindfulness as a consumer. In terms of measures that can be taken by consumers, Winston said “voting with our dollars” is one of the most useful efforts for change.
“We as customers are voting with our dollars. If we’re buying the more sustainable or greener product, that drives demand… it impacts how a company thinks and that’s really where you can make a difference.”
In order to fully utilize Amazon’s potential, Winston said that customers should take advantage of the online community, and use their voice to leave positive reviews on the site’s pages featuring greener products. The Daily Dot also recommends to avoid buying multiple items that cannot be bundled together: at that point, it may be more efficient to just go to the store rather than rely on Amazon Prime.
In 2017, Amazon anticipates expansion in India, investment in artificial intelligence and, ideally, further strides towards renewable energy. The environmental responsibility, however, does not only fall on what the business does to be eco-friendly. As Amazon grows, the consumer base must follow suit and shop mindfully, offering a sensible alternative to exploiting Amazon’s convenient and services. Using this tactic, customers can fully appreciate the full benefit of what Amazon has to offer to us, to retail and most importantly — to the planet.
Catherine Colgan is a first year exploratory major that has been using an Amazon Prime free student trial to watch all 6 seasons of Downton Abbey. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org