Is two-day shipping destroying the planet? Find out what Amazon is doing about its impact on the environment in this podcast. You will hear about how its actions are affecting people, places, and the environment all around the globe while also learning what is missing.
Are you an Amazon Prime member? Do you like two-day shipping? What do you know about what Amazon is doing to combat climate change?
Hello, my name is Brooke Foster, and in this podcast, Thinking Outside the Shipping Box: An Analysis of Amazon’s Climate Pledge,
I am going to be examining how Amazon is taking action to reduce its environmental impact. We will be looking at this through an environmental geopolitical lens. More specifically we will be looking at the environmental, human, and spatial impacts that Amazon is having.
Amazon has come a long way from being an online bookseller. Now they sell just about anything and everything. The best part being that you can get free two-day shipping. Amazon is my go-to when I want anything. As a result of this I have a fair amount of Amazon packages delivered to my door.
So, when my professor asked us to find a claim about the environment, I knew it needed to be about my unhealthy addiction to Amazon shopping. More specifically I have been trying to live a more environmentally conscious life and have been into ecofriendly products. But like real ones and not the greenwashed ones. The problem with this though is that most of these products are exclusively found on small business websites. I love to support a small business, but I am also a broke college student that can’t afford their prices plus shipping all the time. So, like everything I looked on amazon and found a lot of the brands on there. This class led me to question whether Amazon’s business practices and impact on the environment canceled out all the good I was doing by buying these products.
So, I started researching about it and I stumbled across this claim about what Amazon is doing about climate change and their impact on the environment. The claim is: The Climate Pledge is a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040—10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement. Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge in 2019 to build a cross-sector community of companies, organizations, individuals, and partners working together to address the climate crisis and solve the challenges of decarbonizing our economy. This claim was made by Amazon and can be found on Amazon’s sustainability website. They are arguing that the best thing for them to do to help stop climate change is to eliminate carbon emissions from their business. They believe that the world is at risk and that if we continue on as we are and keep emitting carbon as we are then we are going to have serious repercussions. So, Amazon has created the Climate pledge to securitize the environment and to create a way to hold companies accountable to do so.
So that’s what I am going to be looking at in this podcast. I am going to investigate Amazons Climate Pledge by asking three different questions:
1. How are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified in this claim,
2. What is the role of human agency within this claim?
3. What is the spatial focus of this particular claim?
As I answer these questions, we will also discover what Amazon might be overlooking and what we are not seeing as consumers.
The climate pledge is centered around businesses eliminating carbon emissions as a way of preventing climate change from getting worse. Amazon is doing a number of things to eventually reach net-zero carbon emissions. Carbon has a huge impact on the environment and traps heat in our atmosphere which plays a part in the rising temperature that the Paris Agreement and many scientists are so concerned about. The climate pledge is in response to the Paris Agreement trying to take preventative measures to keep the planet from reaching two degrees Celsius above preindustrial times as Joeri Rogelj and their colleagues explain. So, what is Amazon doing to take care of its carbon emissions? They are investing in renewable energy, have started replacing their delivery vans with electric ones, and are taking part in carbon offsets.
It’s common knowledge that these things reduce carbon emissions which will help our environment. There is still some debate as to how effective and good these solutions are but that is a longer conversation. The creation of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars all have an impact on our environment. To put it simply, how Amazon goes about this determines how impactful it will be. Solar panels have the opportunity to be more environmentally friendly than any of our other ways of producing energy. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists their lifecycle in whole can produce about .52 to 3.4 pounds less of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. We just need to be conscious of where we put them, how we make them, and how we get rid of them. Electric vehicles come with their own problems of whether the mining of the material needed to create their batteries offsets any good that they do. Carbon offsets are not the most reliable way of managing carbon emissions. Charles Schmidt explains carbon offsets as being projects that companies take on to remove or reduce carbon emissions. They usually are outside of what the business is already doing to reduce carbon emissions and are often bought from other people. This is where things get a little unreliable. You may think you have bought a carbon offset but there’s no ensuring how long it lasts or whether someone is just selling you the same offset they gave to someone else. This can happen because offsets are not tangible. An example of this is tree planting because they remove carbon. The tree could die and then the offset will not have been effective.
All of this seems a bit pointless when you take into consideration that when Amazon finally reported its carbon emissions, they did not count everything. According to Will Evans they are only counting the emissions of the amazon brand products and not those of other brands that they have on their site. The Amazon brand is only one percent of Amazon’s sales. So, they are not counting the impact of ninety nine percent of their sales. So, as they are decarbonizing their company are they missing carbon emissions because they are not considering half of their products when counting their emissions? According to this article other big box stores take into account the impact of making the products and using them as well. Amazon is not taking into account ninety nine percent of this.
This does not mean that all of Amazon’s efforts are in vain. It just means that we need to be careful and not just take things at their face value. It’s important to consider everything and the many impacts it could have.
The other thing to consider is that carbon emissions are not the only way that Amazon is having a negative impact on our environment. One of the big ones is their packaging. Amazon explains on their sustainability website how they have changed their packaging to reduce their environmental impact. They got rid of their easily recyclable cardboard boxes and replaced them with the mailer pouches we are now familiar with. The idea behind it is that without the rigid box that may not be perfectly fit to the product they can fit more packages in one vehicle and the product will also weigh less which means it will take less fuel to ship. This will help them ship more products while using less transportation and therefore emitting less carbon. This is a really genius idea but there is just one hitch in this plan. These mailers, although labeled recyclable, are for the most part not recyclable. This is because of a number of reasons. The first reason is that they must be properly disposed of. This means that customers must look up what they must do to the packaging and where they can take it to be recycled. Miles Brignall explains that when it is just put in curbside recycling it clogs the recycling machines. The mailers are a plastic film that must be specially recycled. The other issue is that people are lazy and don’t want to go through all this trouble. No matter how much they care about the environment, not everyone may be able to afford to go to all this trouble. This means that this mailer will end up in the landfill or ocean where the tiny bits that will never fully biodegrade will be around forever.
Also, within this claim it is important to consider who all is impacted and involved in it. I think the first and most important person to mention here is Jeff Bezos. He is the founder of Amazon and now has investments in and owns many other companies. He is the second richest man in the world according to Forbes. Someone like that has a lot of power. There’s obviously competitiveness amongst businesses. It’s long been thought that if businesses try to be more environmentally conscious that it would hurt their business too much to do anything about it. So, when a company as massive as Amazon does it first then others will follow. Sure, enough since the creation of the climate pledge 378 and counting companies have signed to become carbon net-zero by 2040.
Then there are the people who live around Amazon fulfillment and distribution centers. According to Sam Levin at the Guardian many of the people living near them report lots of air pollution that causes many health problems. This is due to the heavy traffic from the semi-trucks and vans that go to and from them constantly to give us that two-day shipping. These vehicles release a lot of pollution in the area. On top of this warehouses tend to be in communities that are 85% people of color and according to the consumer report 57% of these warehouses are in low-income areas. Concern over these statistics and the people in these areas seems to be glossed over because Amazon is providing them with lots of jobs.
Then there is the role that the Paris Agreement has in influencing the creation of the climate pledge. The climate pledge took decarbonizing strategies from it. The United Nations made the Paris Agreement to keep the warming of the planet below an increase in two degrees Celsius. Joeri Rogelj and their colleagues mention that in order to do this then at some point we will have to reach net-zero carbon emissions. This lines up with what the climate pledge is doing. The only difference is that with the Paris Agreement there are a bunch of governments holding each other accountable and have the power to ensure it happens. The climate pledge has no strong accountability to ensure that companies do what they should. Under the frequently asked questions on the climate pledge site there is information on accountability. To keep business accountable, they and I quote must commit to measuring and reporting within one year of signing the Pledge. What’s wrong with this you may wonder? Well as Will Evans from Reveal News explains Amazon did not report its emissions to the CDP until 2021. This is against what is stated should be done on the Climate Pledge website. Amazon founded and joined the climate pledge in 2019. This undermines the authority that the climate pledge has on keeping other companies accountable. If the founder does not report, then why should anyone else. Along with this on Amazon’s sustainability website there is a disclaimer the bottom of the page that says that they are not legally obligated to do what they say, and the information is subject to change. Of course, for legal reasons this is important but there is no assurance that Amazon is going to do what they say they are going to do.
Another important part of Amazon’s climate pledge is its creation of the climate pledge friendly symbol put on products that are environmentally friendly. Amazon is now informing and giving the consumer the opportunity to purchase more environmentally conscious products. This provides an accessible way of getting these kinds of things. However, is this just a way of Amazon putting the responsibility of shopping sustainably in the hands of the consumer and off of them?
Now let’s look at the spatial aspect of Amazon and the climate pledge.
Amazon does business in almost every country around the world. So, the impact that they have through their actions with the climate pledge are going to affect many countries. According to Tara Johnson, in the United States alone there are 1,137 distribution centers and 305 fulfillment centers. So, Amazon is everywhere and as I mentioned earlier the pollution caused by traffic to these warehouses greatly affects those who live around them. The climate pledge could have a massive positive effect on these people and their health. It could improve their lives.
Another important thing to consider is if the plastic mailers are not getting recycled, where are they ending up? I think we have all seen the very disturbing pictures of trash in the oceans. Then there is the aspect that plastic never fully goes away so we have a bunch of microplastics.
Something interesting about Amazons plastic mailers is that they are not the predominant form of mailer in all countries. The Oceana Report explains that the German and India governments are trying to get away from plastic packaging so Amazon has had to turn to non-plastic mailers as much as it can. These countries have alternatives to single use plastic, and they have returnable packaging. The problem is that America has yet to set any regulations on single use plastic in order to force Amazon’s hand.
Then there is the spatial aspect of where these 379 renewable energy projects that they say they have on their sustainability site. Wind energy is not as much of a concern spatially because they can be put pretty much anywhere and don’t take up a whole lot of space. On the other hand, though, solar panels take up a lot of space. There are ways to do it responsibly and then there are lazy ways of doing it like destroying a forest or field to make room for them. The Union of Concerned Scientists proposed a sustainable alternative to this. That is by using already disturbed land like land that was used for mining, contaminated land, or the land that has pipelines and energy lines. These would be lands that we may not be able to do a whole lot with.
There is a lot to be done to address climate change. It is so amazing to see big companies taking responsibility for their impact on the environment. Amazon is taking action to decarbonize and have a better company for the environment. However, there is so much more to address than just carbon emissions. In this podcast I just brushed the surface of Amazon’s climate pledge and what they are doing. I hope this serves as a guide to critically think about how different companies claim to be becoming more environmentally friendly and that this leads you to look into what they are saying and not to just take their word for it.
And now I will leave you with one final thing to think about: Amazon has taken all of these actions to make their business become more environmentally conscious. They are doing everything they can to keep business as normal as possible without taking away from it. Is this the best way of going about things? Should we instead be looking at how we have become massive consumers that create an overabundance of waste. Maybe we should be looking at consuming less.
Thank you for listening. This is Thinking Outside the Shipping Box: An Analysis of Amazons Climate Pledge. Sound effects for the podcast are from the following site, Freesound: “Cardboard Tearing 07.wav” by BenDrain licensed under Public Domain CC0
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