Nearly 8,000 Amazon employees publicly signed a letter asking their company to drastically limit its impact on the environment. They hoped to present their plea directly to their boss, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, at the company’s annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday.
But the boss was not available — at least not right then.
Bezos attended the shareholder meeting in Seattle, and took the stage later Wednesday morning to answer investor questions and discuss business highlights.
When the employees backing the climate proposal had their moment to speak at the event though, Bezos was apparently not in the room.
Amazon employee Emily Cunningham, one of the organizers of the climate proposal, stood up to introduce it to the other shareholders at the meeting. Her voice shook as she started to speak, she said. And her first question was, where’s our boss, Jeff Bezos?
She asked him to come out on stage so she could “speak to him directly.” The event moderator shrugged her off, saying that Bezos would be out later. When asked if Bezos would be able to hear the employees’ proposal, an awkward silence hung over the proceedings until the MC curtly responded: “I assume so.”
The employees who were working so hard to get Bezos’ attention on an issue near to their hearts were not pleased.
They later tweeted on the Twitter account, Amazon employees for Climate Justice, “This is not the kind of leadership we need to address the climate crisis. We need a plan, a commitment to zero carbon emissions. Employees no longer ‘assume’ we’re doing enough. We want to lead the way.”
The episode was a telling example of the complex landscape that Amazon now operates in, with the $915 billion company facing increasing scrutiny over its business practices even as investors and customers praise its services.
In addition to the climate advocates, protesters, some dressed in poop emoji costumes, gathered outside to protest work conditions and Amazon’s facial recognition software.
Despite how well Amazon stockholders are doing these days — the stock is trading at about $1,860 — the atmosphere inside the room at the shareholders’ meeting was not celebratory, reported CNN Business reporter Lydia DePillis.
“This is a buttoned-up, no frills, just-get-it-over-with event,” DePillis tweeted from inside the room.
There was no livestream and journalists were not allowed to bring cameras or take photos. Those who tried were stopped by the company’s PR folks.
Lots of support, except on the board
The climate letter signed by Amazon employees urged the company to do more than offer a handful of green programs. They want a plan for Amazon to stop using fossil fuels in its operations entirely with the goal of making Amazon a zero-emissions company.
The employees also called for things like no longer helping oil companies with fossil-fuel related projects. (Amazon Web Services has a unit dedicated to the gas and oil industry). They want the company to stop supporting politicians with abysmal climate legislation track records. And they want the company to not punish employees, including hourly workers, who miss work due to climate-related events like hurricanes and fires.
But their official shareholder proposal was far more modest. They wanted the company to develop a disaster recovery plan for climate-related events and to publish a progress report on Amazon’s attempts to limit its fossil fuel consumption.
Amazon’s board of directors did not back the proposal, arguing that the company’s green initiatives were plentiful enough. And, since shareholder proposals virtually never pass without board support, it was was voted down. This despite the fact that two of the nation’s two largest proxy advisory firms, Glass Lewis and Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), came out in support of the resolution. (In fact, all 11 shareholder proposals presented on Wednesday, none of which were supported by the board, were voted down.)
In all, 7,683 Amazon employees signed their names to the letter, representing about 12% of the company’s tech employees, one of them said at a press conference that was livestreamed after the shareholder meeting.
“They completely dodged our question”
About 50 employees had crowded into the shareholder’s meeting to support Cunningham, who works as a UX designer at her day job, and her speech.
They had to jump through hoops to do be allowed in, she said at the press conference. This year there were multiple controversial proposals being presented and security was tight.
In years past, an employee badge was enough to get into the meeting, Cunningham said at the press conference. Many employees are paid in stock so they are shareholders. This year, however, the badge wasn’t enough. They had to prove their their stock ownership, Cunningham said.
Despite the photography ban at the meeting, the Amazon employees took a few pictures and tweeted them, including one showing all of them raising their hands to ask a question of the boss, Bezos, when he was on stage.
During the Q&A, they did get a chance to ask their boss questions.
An employee, Orion Stanger, Software Development Engineer, asked: “We’ve talked a lot about our renewable energy goal being long term but we don’t have any dates associated with that.”
He pointed out that as an employee, it would be unacceptable not to have deadlines for his projects. He asked Bezos point blank: “What is the date for when we will achieve 100% renewables for all of Amazon’s operations?”
An Amazon rep responded: “As we’ve said before later this year, we’re going to release our carbon footprint publicly and along with that goals associated with carbon so more to come on that, nothing to share today. The long term goal today remains a long term goal but more to come this year.”
They were not happy with the answer.
“We’re on to Q&A and all of us raised our hands but they completely dodged our question. This isn’t climate leadership,” they employees later tweeted.
Some encouraging signs
If there was one bit of good news for the employees pushing for an eco-friendly agenda it’s this: beyond the cold shoulder of their boss, none of them have experienced any retaliation at work over this, they said.
In fact, they’ve experienced the opposite. In addition to nearly thousands of employees signing the letter, they’ve heard from coworkers thrilled that they’ve taken on this social action.
So the employees said they aren’t giving up. In fact, they are taking a victory lap in as much as they can. They first began the process of their shareholder proposal six months ago, and feel they’ve scored a few wins, including Amazon’s commitment to use carbon credits to offset the impact of its packaging/shipments, a plan called Shipment Zero introduced in February.
“In six months, we’ve won changes including Shipment Zero and a commitment to share our company’s carbon footprint, but we know these half-steps are not nearly enough to address the scale of our company’s contributions toward the climate crisis,” said Jamie Kowalski in a statement emailed to Business Insider. Kowalski is a software development engineer who co-filed the resolution and attended the shareholder meeting.
“Amazon has the scale and resources to spark the world’s imagination and lead the way on addressing the climate crisis. What we’re missing is leadership from the very top of the company,” he said.
“We have the talent to do this. The tech exists. It’s just a matter of making the right choices,” another Amazon employee, Weston Fribley, said at the press conference.