Kara Hurst named Amazon's first sustainability executive

Kara Hurst named Amazon's first sustainability executive

Retailing giant Amazon has hired Kara Hartnett Hurst, CEO of The Sustainability Consortium, to be its first sustainability executive.

The company, in typical closed-mouth fashion, has not announced Hurst’s hiring and declined to comment on it. Hurst, too, was mum, even declining to reveal her title, where she’ll be reporting, or what her mandate will be at the retailer.

A recent memo sent to members of The Sustainability Consortium — a research group whose members include businesses with combined revenues exceeding $2.4 trillion — said only that she'd "accepted an executive position at Amazon to head up sustainability for the company," stepping out of her role at TSC at the end of August.

Whatever her charge at Amazon, she will have her work cut out for her. Amazon has been largely AWOL from the sustainability scene — a “no show,” as my friend Marc Gunther put it in 2012. While Amazon touts some energy-efficiency, green building and packaging innovations, it has not publicly reported its impacts, performance or commitments, if any. The company shuns industry collaborations such as Green Grid, a membership group of IT companies working to improve energy and resource efficiency of data centers. It doesn’t publish a sustainability report or report greenhouse gas emissions to CDP. Amazon has consistently ranked near the bottom of most relevant activist lists, from Climate Counts to Greenpeace’s Green IT rankings.

Hurst will arrive at Amazon in October with nearly two decades' experience working in tech and sustainability. Prior to arriving at TSC in 2012, she served for 11 years as an executive at BSR, and before that in Silicon Valley, where she ran OpenVoice, one of the Valley's earliest social ventures. She also worked for former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Whether Hurst can turn Amazon around will be a true test of her skills, but there’s precedent in another iconic tech company: Apple. Barely two years ago, it was similarly (though not equally) villainized by environmental and labor groups for its recalcitrance to play by activists’ rules. It took the hiring of a strong and high-profile sustainability executive, former EPA head Lisa Jackson, to turn the company around. In relatively short order, Apple moved to the front of the class, winning praise from activists, including Greenpeace.

It’s unclear whether Hurst can be equally influential with her new employer.

Apple’s transformation was aided by another big change at the company — the ascension of CEO Tim Cook. He followed in the wake of Steve Jobs, who never placed corporate responsibility high on his list. But with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos not likely to hand over the reins anytime soon, Hurst will need to work with the current leadership.

She’s not saying, but I’ve known Hurst for years — she's no shrinking violet — and am guessing that Bezos or others said the right things to lure her to Seattle from New York. It will be interesting to see if it was worth the journey.

Photo of Hurst taken from video of interview at the 2013 GreenBiz Forum.