Paul Hodgson: How Amazon’s employee/shareholder resolution breaks ground

Taking a closer look at one extraordinary proposal at online giant

Earlier this month we looked at how Amazon’s global influence means it now gets as many shareholder proposals as ‘old economy’ companies used to. Here we look in greater detail at an innovative resolution that will go to the vote this week.

Of the 12 shareholder resolutions up for a vote at Amazon’s 22 May annual meeting, one of the more ‘standard’ proposals on climate is also one of the more extraordinary.
As Amazon employee and co-filer Emily Cunningham told RI in an interview: “This is the first time Amazon employees have filed a resolution at the company and this is, as far as we know, the first time that any tech employees at this scale have ever done this. There are 28 co-filers on this resolution, which includes some former employees.”
It’s not a particularly quiet revolution – there have been a lot of tweets about the importance of the company taking action on its carbon footprint but few physical protests so far – but a revolution it is.
It’s one that may presage more such employee/shareholder activism as tech employees who have been richly rewarded with equity realise the power it has put in their hands.
While the company has consistently resisted calls to release data on its carbon footprint, Amazon had – until recently – been among those tech companies installing clean power plants to fuel its operations.
Cunningham pointed RI to a long investigative article on Gizmodo that found that these efforts had stalled out and that the company was not in line to meet its targets. Gizmodo noted, however, that the attention the company was getting as a result of the employee resolution had kickstarted its renewable energy plans and that it had announced three new plans in April, to power Amazon Web Services (AWS).
In addition to the company’s better-known operations, it is the carbon impact of AWS that is one of the drivers behind the employee resolution. As Gizmodo noted, AWS made more money than McDonald’s last year; 70% of Amazon’s profits comes from AWS, but what, exactly, does it do?
Apart from hosting most of the internet, during the period when Amazon was quietly neglecting its clean power push, AWS was: “Positioning for Success in Oil & Gas” according to sales documents seen by Gizmodo.

As Cunningham pointed out, Amazon is actively wooing fossil fuel companies, saying its products can “find oil faster”, “recover more oil” and “reduce the cost per barrel”.But AWS is not the only problem. She noted that the “purchase of 20,000 diesels vans in Q3 2018” hardly signaled a clean energy giant.

She also pointed to the employees’ open letter sent to CEO Jeff Bezos which noted that: “While Amazon has joined a variety of sustainability organizations like the Corporate Eco Forum and the American Council on Renewable Energy, we donated to 68 members of congress in 2018 who voted against climate legislation 100% of the time.” The letter has been signed by over 7,000 Amazon employees, a figure that is growing daily.

Cunningham’s narration of the genesis of the resolution is indicative of Amazon’s shifting position on climate. “Shipment Zero [a vision for net zero carbon shipments] and its commitment to releasing its carbon footprint are a direct result of employee pressure,” she stated.
“After we co-filed the resolution, Amazon asked to meet with us and we had a meeting in January. The meeting included a VP for Investor relations, the Sustainability Director and other sustainability leaders, reps from Amazon’s PR & legal, and 11 people from our group of resolution co-filers. We asked if Amazon would release their carbon footprint and they refused. We also asked if they would be willing to give a date for when it would be released, and they refused to do this as well.”
After the meeting, Cunningham said the group decided to put together the open letter. “We put together a first draft and began circulating it one-on-one with other employees,” she continued. “We wanted to gauge whether others would be willing to sign this kind of letter before sending it out far and wide. Someone in Europe got really excited about it and sent it to over 50 sustainability email lists. That happened on a Thursday, February 14th. Our email list of supporters doubled overnight from 600 to 1,200 and senior leadership obviously learned we were working on an open letter. Then on Monday morning, the 18th, Amazon came out with the Shipment Zero announcement which was fairly vague and without concrete dates, saying they would release their carbon footprint and related goals and programs, ‘later this year’. The very next day, Amazon’s VP from investor relations emailed us, asking us if we would withdraw the resolution because of the announcement of Shipment Zero. We think that shows a pretty clear tie between Amazon’s announcements and our actions.”
While the filers started filing the resolution in November, the open letter did not come out until April.
Clearly, the group did not withdraw its resolution. “When they asked us to withdraw because of Shipment Zero, we told them that Shipment Zero wasn’t enough for us to withdraw but that we’d be very open to talking with them about what it would take for us to withdraw. We met with them again in March and told them that for us to withdraw we’d need 1) a truly comprehensive, companywide plan – with timelines in line with science, and 2) an end to creating custom solutions for oil and gas companies that help them accelerate and expand oil and gas extraction.“It was in this meeting that we learned the most senior person responsible for sustainability in the company was not even aware that we had an oil and gas business. This showed us, very clearly, the need for Amazon to create a company-wide plan that addresses the climate crisis at the scale and urgency it requires.”
Responding to a request for comment, a company spokesperson said: “We have a range of innovative programs that are part of Amazon’s environmental sustainability initiatives to help achieve Shipment Zero, our vision to make all customer shipments net zero carbon, with 50% of all shipments net zero by 2030.”