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Why Amazon is great but not good

Like millions of people, I like to shop at Amazon. But the more I learn about the company, the less I like it.

Amazon's  performance on environmental and social issues has been truly dismal, as a I wrote in a story on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric and one of American’s most influential business leaders, likes to say that "if you want to be a great company today, you also have to be a good company."

Another celebrated chief executive named Jeff -- Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO -- is putting that proposition to the test.

Amazon is, in many ways, a great company. But good? Nope.

Amazon doesn't publish a sustainability report, probably because it would have little to say. It doesn't respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project. (More than 80 percent of big companies do.) It's ranked very low by Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to mitigate climate change. Amazon'ss  data centers get low marks from Greenpeace.

Nor does Amazon do well on social and political issues. Until Bezos agreed to install electricity last year, warehouse workers literally toiled in sweatshops where the temperatures could top 90 degrees. The company has fiercely fought efforts by states to collect sales taxes, using bullying tactics at times. If you believe the Seattle Times, and I do, the company gives less to charities than other Seattle companies and “cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.” For more, read the rest of the Guardian story.

Here's one more small, but revealing, example of Amazon's cavalier attitude towards environmental issues: Check out, if you have a moment, the page on its website about electronics recycling. Unlike, say, Best Buy, Amazon does not take back electronic waste. Instead, it refers people to other websites, including Earth911. And what does Earth 911 say about electronics recycling? Among other things, it advises customers to take their old electronics back to Best Buy, Staples and Circuit City -- which went bankrupt in 2009!

There is, of course, another good reason not to shop at Amazon, as I was reminded when I read The Bookstore Strikes Back, a terrific story in The Atlantic by the author Ann Patchett about the independent bookstore she opened earlier this year in her hometown of Nashville. People shop at Parnassus Books, she writes, because:

They have learned through this journey we’ve all been on that the lowest price does not always represent the best value. Parnassus Books creates jobs in our community and contributes to the tax base. We’ve made a place where children can learn and play, where they can think those two things are one and the same. We have a piano. We have two part-time store dogs. We have authors who come and read; you can ask them questions, and they will sign your book. The business model may be antiquated, but it’s the one I like, and so far it’s the one that’s working.

All that said, Amazon has done a world of good in the last 15 years for authors and readers, as well as producers and consumers of many of the things it sells. People who don't live near retail stores have access to the company's enormous inventory. Writers like me have access to millions of readers. (I published my own ebook, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, as a Kindle Single.)

Like Walmart, Amazon is super-efficient and able to offer low prices. It's a growing business that employs more than 50,000 people, which is no small thing, and it has made its shareholders a lot of money. Bezos, No. 11 on Forbes list of America's wealthiest people, is said to be worth $23 billion, and he has begun to give some of that money away.

Still, when it comes to corporate responsibility, at least as conventionally defined, Amazon's nowhere. Its retail competitors -- Walmart and Best Buy -- do much better. So do other other big tech companies like Microsoft, Google and even Apple.

I emailed and called Amazon a few days ago to ask for an interview, and only heard back from Craig Berman, a company spokesman, after I'd filed my story to the Guardian. He referred me to a page on Amazon's website -- Amazon's Innovations for Our Planet -- that's mostly about packaging and energy efficiency (and was last updated in 2011). Small potatoes. He also said, interestingly, that responding to the Carbon Disclosure Project survey is "something we are considering."

Amazon's competitive advantages may be so formidable that the company need not worry about its carbon footprint or philanthropy. [Read my friend Adam Lashinsky's FORTUNE cover story about Bezos for more insight.] But I think a day of reckoning is ahead. As the company continues to grow, pressures on Amazon to do more good (or at least do no evil) will grow, too. It happened to Apple. Amazon's next.

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