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The Prime Effect: The Environmental Footprint Behind The World's Largest Online Retailer

Amazon Prime boxes are loaded on a cart for delivery in New York. (Mark Lennihan, File/AP Photo)
Amazon Prime boxes are loaded on a cart for delivery in New York. (Mark Lennihan, File/AP Photo)

That package at your door. It begins with power-guzzling server farms. Gargantuan distribution centers. Tens of thousands of trucks. More than 80 commercial planes. And billions of cardboard boxes.

For a long time, Amazon would not release its carbon footprint data. But then, in 2019, Amazon pivoted, and pledged to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement a decade early.

Today, On Point: Our series The Prime Effect takes a look inside the world’s largest online retailer and its impact on planet earth.


Anastasia O’Rourke, managing director of the Yale School of the Environment’s Carbon Containment Lab.

Tom Rivett-Carnac, co-founder of Global Optimism. Co-host of the Outrage and Optimism podcast. Co-author of “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis.” (@tomcarnac)

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Eliza Pan, she worked for Amazon from 2013-2019. Co-founder of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

Interview Highlights

On the environmental impact of placing an order on Amazon  

Anastasia O’Rourke: “Especially over the past year and a half of this pandemic … we’re all doing a lot more online ordering. But really, it starts with you, with the decision to buy those shoes, or buy whatever it is you’re buying from Amazon. So really, you could think about, you’re starting with making a decision to buy something. Researching it a little. In this case, going on to Amazon.com and selecting the shoes and clicking that button. Once that happens, we can think about all of the different associated impacts, environmental impacts with that box, with the shoes in the box.

“So to just sort of walk that back a little bit, we can think about the packaging itself, of the box itself. And that’s often something very tangible. You know, it’s a very visible sort of show of a lot of potential waste associated with that. Is this being recycled? Like what happens to that, you know, after we’ve used it for that period of time. So there’s a whole set of impacts associated with that, depending on how the box is made, where is it from, what sorts of forests were used to grow the trees to make the wood, to make the cardboard, et cetera.”

On quantifying Amazon’s impact on the environment

Anastasia O’Rourke: “There’s ways of doing sort of high-level descriptions that aggregate a lot of information just to get a real sense of it. It’s also a question, do we want to spend time measuring it or do we want to spend time being really, really accurate with that? Or do we want to spend time actually trying to address the biggest problem?

“So one of the things that I think many people in the environmental community are now working on is really prioritizing those impacts that are really pressing, and material and problematic that we know enough to know we need to act on them now. And we don’t need to measure every single sort of impact of every single paper clip here. We need to focus on those categories that are really that big and problematic. And so I think that’s the way to address it. Otherwise, we’ll just have the paralysis-by-analysis problem.”

On Amazon’s climate plan

Tom Rivett-Carnac: “Amazon came out in 2019 and committed to be net zero by 2040, so that is 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement. The best science when we negotiated the agreement between governments in 2015 was that we needed to reduce our impact on the climate to nothing by the middle of the century. And the whole organizing idea behind the climate pledge is that if that’s what the world’s governments are saying, then Amazon wanted to go faster.

“And so created this climate pledge that requires companies that sign up, and Amazon was the first signatory, to be transparent about their emissions according to commonly recognized standards, and to disclose that publicly. To reduce their emissions through genuine reductions in business processes, in everything they do in transportation and heating and cooling, to get that down really as far as it can. And then with the residual rump of emissions that can’t be reduced to buy credible, reliable, permanent offsets to get that down to zero. So that’s the plan.”

Is Amazon being ambitious enough with its climate plan?

Anastasia O’Rourke: “They’re playing a bit of catch up at this point. Because they did start the environmental sustainability work kind of late in the game compared to some of their competitors, and compared to many other sectors. But as you noted, they do move quickly and move strongly when they move. They’re also really supported by a huge team of people working on this. So I think that we’ll see them catch up and maybe even overtake some of these commitments in the future. I think it comes down to where you draw the boundary around a company’s responsibility as to how ambitious it is.

“So if you’re including all of these products and services that Amazon is selling on its platform as part of its responsibility, then that’s a massive undertaking that they’ve just committed to. If Wal-Mart, for example, is also including all of the products and services that it sells on its shelves and through its retail, then I don’t think they’re going to be reaching net zero or zero emissions with all of that included.

“So it sort of depends … how you draw the boundaries around some of these commitments, as to sort of how ambitious it is. But I do think Amazon is making some pretty big financial commitments to the innovation end of the spectrum, realizing that they have these really hard-to-avoid emissions right now where there really isn’t sustainable aviation fuel, for example, of sufficient quantities that they would need, and still run their business the way they want to run it. So, you know, what are we going to do?

“So they are looking ahead and trying to invest in the new technologies, new approaches to creating those sorts of energy sources that have less impact in the future. And that’s great. And we need to see more of that. So while, yes, we can critique this, that and the other of their approach, I’m actually fundamentally pretty excited that they’re taking such a big stance right now. And putting both their financial resources into it, as well as their staffing and their sort of analytical prowess to helping find solutions here.”

On actions Amazon can take to reduce climate impact

Anastasia O’Rourke: “There’s a few things that I can say they could do more of. And I want to recognize all of the great work that’s already going on there, and some of the pledge work in particular, and the funds that was just mentioned is really great. It’s just going to take a while until those things really come to pass and technologies are developed and deployed. It takes quite a while. So in the meantime, I’d like to see them really on the sustainable consumption side, helping use their power and influence over consumers to guide them towards making more sustainable choices.

“They do have a climate pledge friendly program. It’s kind of a certification of certifications that you can find eco-friendly and green products. But you need to know about that program to even find it. So it’s not necessarily something that they’re putting front and center yet. And I’d love to see them expand that program and make it much more obvious to all consumers. And to really help us put those greener, safer, more environmentally-friendly goods and services products right in front of us, and not just towards those options, because that has a huge cascading effect deep down into all of those supply chains.

“And then another thing I think, you know, we talked a little bit about the scope three emissions and how especially for retail or service companies, really the vast majority of emissions for those companies. I looked a little bit at their supplier engagement program and it doesn’t really address climate right now. So it’s possible that they’re working on this behind the scenes and they’re not yet talking about it. But their supplier engagement programs right now are really around labor issues and risk mitigation of sort of finding and controlling for any really major labor violation issues all around the world. And that’s great. But they’re not really dealing with climate yet. And so I’d love to see them work more on that.

“And then thirdly, to meet their net zero goals, they are going to need offsets, carbon offsets. And they do have some principles that they’re laying out of how they’re going to select those. However, I’ve been working a lot on these carbon offsets at Yale, and I can tell you that there just aren’t enough credible ones out there today to really meet the need that’s coming down the line from all of these companies making these net zero pledges. So I think we collectively need to come up with some really great, very high quality carbon offset programs, in particular in carbon removal, to really be able to meaningfully contribute to these net zero goals. So those are the three main areas, I think, that they could expand their work on.”

From The Reading List

NBC News: “Amazon workers demand end to pollution hitting people of color hardest” — “An internal petition signed by 640 Amazon tech and corporate employees is asking the company to raise its emissions goals and address the disproportionate environmental harms its logistics empire leaves on Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant neighborhoods where its warehouses are often concentrated.”

Forbes: “Opinion: Amazon Delivers On Its Sustainability Commitments And Then Some” — “If you follow the news or live in an area affected by any of the recent major national disasters, we could be now witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand.”

Green Biz: “Companies made climate commitments — now it’s time to stop making climate chaos” — “Last year, corporate climate commitments went mainstream. Climate and clean energy commitments are no longer just for trailblazing corporations with thick profit margins.”

Wall Street Journal: “Amazon and Other Tech Giants Race to Buy Up Renewable Energy” — “The race to secure electricity deals for power-hungry data centers has tech companies reshaping the renewable-energy market and grappling with a new challenge: how to ensure their investments actually reduce emissions.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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