Can Amazon's sustainability dream team deliver?

Can Amazon's sustainability dream team deliver?

Amazon boxes on a doorstep
ShutterstockJulie Clopper
What's going on inside Amazon?

If you type the words "Amazon sustainability" into Google, the first thing that comes up in the search is a link to books about sustainability that the online retail giant sells.

The company sells books and lots of other things, online. It sells enough to fill 3.3 million boxes of various sizes and shapes each and every day. Amazon uses recycled cardboard to make those boxes, and makes reasonable efforts to make sure those boxes are shipped sustainably, but beyond that, the company, an innovator in so many ways, is really behind the curve when it comes to sustainability.

According to Richard Matthews, writing in globalwarmingisreal.com:

Amazon has consistently ranked near the bottom of most relevant activist lists, from Climate Counts to Greenpeace’s Green IT rankings. Amazon consumes vast quantities of energy and resources. The scope and size of its operations invite scrutiny and demand leadership. To date, the company has demonstrated an ongoing lack of transparency on environmental issues. Amazon is not involved with sustainability collaborations nor does it publish a sustainability report or report greenhouse gas emissions to CDP. Until the company publicly reports its impacts, performance and commitments criticisms are justified and its reputation is at risk.

Beyond that, the company has received consistently low grades from Greenpeace on its data centers and criticized for its lack of transparency in the Amazon Web Services operation. Amazon also has received flack for the treatment of workers in its fulfillment centers, as well as corporate office workers, in what a New York Times story describes as "a bruising workplace."

Apparently, Amazon got the memo. The company has decided to address this by hiring a number of highly respected folks to take charge of this aspect of its operations. Back in 2014, it brought in Kara Hurst, as the company’s director of worldwide sustainability and social responsibility. Hurst is the former CEO of the Sustainability Consortium. In August it brought in Christine Bader as director of social responsibility. Prior to this Bader worked on social responsibility at BP and wrote the book, A Manifesto for the Corporate Idealist (PDF).

In December, Amazon hired Christina Page, who headed sustainability strategy at Yahoo, and before that, worked at Rocky Mountain Institute. At Yahoo, Page put a great deal of emphasis on the data centers, which she called "the place where we have the biggest opportunity to make an impact."

The company developed its own cooling center architecture, called the Yahoo Computer Coop because they look a great deal like chicken coops. Relying heavily on ambient air, rather than chillers, they are more efficient than most, earning a PUE, or Power Usage Effectiveness rating of 1.08, with 1.0 being the best possible. Clearly her expertise in this area will be put to good use at Amazon.

Most recently, Amazon brought Dara O’Rourke onboard as a principal scientist in its Sustainable Science team. O’Rourke was previously a professor of environmental and labor policy at UC Berkeley, and a co-founder of Good Guide.

The other five teams in Amazon’s Sustainability group, which now has over 50 people, are: social responsibility; energy and environment; customer packaging experience; sustainability services; and sustainability technology.

It will be interesting to see what Amazon delivers in the sustainability realm. It already has committed to buying a significant amount of renewable energy. But for a company that has been particularly secretive about its operations, it will be interesting to see what is behind the veil.

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