As the largest online retailer in the U.S.–and the second largest in the world, after Alibaba–Amazon’s enormous web of global shipping gives it a massive carbon footprint. But the company now plans to eventually make all shipments “net zero carbon,” or carbon neutral, and is aiming for half of its shipments to meet that goal by 2030. The company also plans to share its total carbon footprint later this year.
In part, the company explains in a blog post, it sees “Shipment Zero” as feasible because transportation technology is changing. “I firmly believe that we’re at the beginning of a revolution or major transformation of the overall transportation and logistics industry,” says John Hodges, a managing director at BSR, a nonprofit that works with businesses to help them become more sustainable. (Amazon is a member of BSR’s Future of Fuels initiative, one collaboration that looks at the future of commercial road freight.) Because the cost of batteries has dropped, some electric delivery trucks are now as affordable as trucks running on diesel or gas, and companies like UPS are beginning to shift to new vehicles. Other retailers, like Ikea, are moving to zero-emissions delivery. Alternative jet fuels, including fuel made from emissions, are becoming more feasible to help improve the footprint of aviation. Presumably, Amazon could also make changes in services like Prime so fewer people choose to get rush delivery–racking up emissions–when they don’t actually need something right away.
That doesn’t mean that in a few years your order from Amazon will arrive via electric cargo ships, electric trucks, and zero-emissions planes; the transition is likely to happen unevenly in different modes, and take time. It’s not clear how much of Amazon’s shipping footprint can be directly reduced to meet its 2030 goal, and how much the company will need to rely on carbon offsets, such as planting trees, to reach net zero carbon. It also isn’t clear whether the company’s goal applies only to items Amazon sells itself, or also the vast number of items shipped by third-party sellers through its platform. (The company has clarified that its goal does include all shipments, and says it won’t be using any offsets, though it’s unclear how they are defining offsets). In either case, though, the company’s scale makes the impact significant. Amazon shipped more than 5 billion products via Prime alone in 2017, and an undisclosed number more than that in 2018.
“I think it’s a good start,” says John Mixon, a former Amazon employee who was part of a group of shareholders in late 2018 who petitioned the company to release a plan to address climate change, a proposal that will come up for a vote at the company’s next shareholder meeting. The group of current and former employees–all of whom had stock through their work with the company, and who saw an opportunity as shareholders to put pressure on Amazon–had seen that the company was taking some action, including large investments in renewable energy and a long-term goal to reach 100% renewables. But it was also lagging behind other tech companies. While the majority of S&P 500 companies report their carbon footprints to the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project, for example, Amazon hasn’t. “All of the news that we had been seeing really ignited us to say we think the company can do more,” Mixon says.
An Amazon spokesperson says that the current announcement wasn’t driven by the employee petitions, though Mixon speculates that the pressure played a role. “I believe that at a minimum, the timing of this announcement was driven directly by the actions of tech workers at Amazon,” he says. In another case, employees pushed the company to adopt a new policy to promote diversity on its board. This type of action, he says, is “part of a broader and bigger sense that employees should feel empowered to influence what their companies do. They’re stakeholders. They are doing something that I think they want to feel like they can be philosophically aligned with, that they can feel good about at the end of the day. I think that that’s something that’s important for all people to try to have in their career if possible.”
While he applauds the Shipment Zero plan, he also thinks that it can go further–particularly since “net zero carbon” implies that the company will rely on carbon offsets as deliveries continue to be powered by fossil fuels. “We’re looking for Amazon to make significant investments in transitioning transportation away from fossil fuels, and that has to be without a reliance on carbon offsets…that doesn’t ultimately effectively reduce pollution,” he says.