Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and the world richest person, last week pledged $ 10 billion (U.S.) to create the “Bezos Earth Fund” — one of the largest philanthropic donations ever made.
In an Instagram post, Bezos wrote: “Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet … We can save Earth. It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals … Earth is the one thing we all have in common — let’s protect it, together.”
This marks a dramatic shift in Bezos’ approach to the climate crisis. Over the past 20 years, Amazon has been mostly concerned about gaining market share and its environmental track record has been embarrassing. In fact, as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas — 44.4 million metric tonnes of CO2 in 2018 according to its own estimates — Amazon is arguably one of the reasons we have a climate crisis to begin with. Hence, the extraordinary donation is somewhat surprising.
Moreover, Bezos’ pledge comes a week after he purchased the most expensive private mansion in California’s history, paying $ 165 million for a ridiculous estate in Beverly Hills that sits on three and a half hectares — the size of seven football fields. Apparently, he doesn’t see any contradiction.
But the truth is Bezos’ real intentions don’t matter. What matters is the process that led Amazon’s CEO to make this remarkable monetary commitment.
Back in April 2019, a few Amazon workers established a group — Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, setting a goal “to ensure our business models don’t contribute to the climate crisis.”
In an open letter (signed by 7,800 employees) to Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s board of directors, the group asked the company to adopt a climate plan shareholder resolution and come up with a concrete, company-wide climate action plan.
The employees tried to pass the resolution at the Annual General Meeting of Amazon’s shareholders, but Jeff Bezos used his 16 per cent stake and influence to vote it down.
Nevertheless, the group was encouraged by the 31 per cent support it got from other shareholders and continued to push its agenda. It called for disclosure of emissions data, criticized contributions the company made to a “climate denial” think tank, and asked to halt contracts between Amazon Web Services and oil and gas companies.
The first sign of a different tone came in September when the company announced its Climate Pledge — a commitment to meet The Paris Agreement 10 years early.
As part of the announcement, Amazon also revealed it ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian, an electric car manufacturer in which it owns a stake. Additionally, the company committed $ 100 million to restore and protect forests. And then, last week, came the grand finale — Bezos’ personal $ 10 billion pledge.
It is of course likely that some of Amazon’s earth-friendly announcements were already in the works — the company hired top sustainability experts back in 2016. But Bezos couldn’t simply ignore ongoing pressure from almost 10,000 of his own employees on the most burning issue out there.
Bezos conjectured that a company-wide climate pledge, plus $ 10 billion of his own money (about 7 per cent of his wealth) will suffice to get his employees, climate activists and the public off his back. He was wrong.
In his influential book, “Winners Take All,” Anand Giridharadas articulates the way plutocrats, Bezos among them, feel they should be approached: “inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever, tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever, tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever, accuse them of being part of the problem.”
But the brave Amazon employees are not playing that game. They demand more from their CEO and are not discouraged even after the company threatened to fire some of them. In a bold statement after Bezos announced his pledge, they tweeted: “We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away.” Then they add: “Will Jeff Bezos show us true leadership, or will he continue to be complicit in the acceleration of the climate crisis, while supposedly trying to help?”
The major lesson from the Bezos Earth Fund is that it highlights the importance and effectiveness of stakeholders — including employees, consumers and shareholders — in disciplining corporations and powerful executives.
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Imagine how much more leverage the employees could have had if they had the support of all institutional investors who collectively own about 58 per cent of Amazon’s shares. Or if consumers had started cancelling their “Amazon Prime” subscriptions in protest.
Even the world’s richest person can be forced to change his behaviour. All it takes is a group of courageous employees who were willing to risk their jobs and speak out loud. This is admirable and we should all take notes.
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