Casper Gelderblom on “Make Amazon Pay” and climate

Published by Kayle Crosson on

15 December 2020 

“Make Amazon Pay”, an international and intersectional campaign, launched on Black Friday this year. 

It brought together unions, environmental groups and other social justice organisations around the world who put together 25 common demands: to make Amazon pay its workers, to make Amazon pay for its impact on the climate, and to make Amazon pay back to society.

Over 400 parliamentarians signed an open letter to the company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, voicing their support for the movement, including 14 Irish TDs and MEPs. 

“For too long the focus has been on the individual when it comes to climate action while those most responsible get a free pass,” signatory Senator Lynn Boylan told the Green News. 

“Climate change and inequality are inextricably linked and we must tackle them together.  Making Amazon Pay is a positive step in doing that,” she added. 

Green Party TD Joe O’Brien also put his name to the open letter, and echoed Senator Lynn Boylan’s belief that the twin crises of climate and inequality must be addressed simultaneously. 

Amazon workers who were put at risk of contracting COVID-19 is only “the latest in a long line of abuses”, according to Mr. O’Brien, and that its rapid growth has coincided with a vast increase in its carbon emissions. 

“Amazon must move quickly to reduce its carbon impact and to provide a Just Transition for those who may be affected by such a move,” he said to The Green News. 

So how did this campaign come about, and what is the relationship exactly between Amazon and climate? We put some of these questions to Casper Gelderblom, a coordinator with Progressive International.

(quick note, he also had a Guardian op-ed the day of the campaign’s launch, which is definitely worth a read).

We reached out to Amazon for a comment on the campaign, but did not receive a reply to our request. 

Why did you start this campaign?

For years now, Amazon has been concentrating more and more power as it has been expanding across the globe. It’s now reached a level where it threatens not only the well-being of its workers, but also the wellbeing of the planet and the public institutions that underpin our very democracy.

It’s amassed so much power in such a short amount of time that it now threatens everything that is dear to us. All for the sake of profit alone.

It has been able to do that because it operates on a transnational level, at which it never meets collective opposition because states and governments, with some possible exception like the EU, is located at the national level.

It’s extremely difficult for regulators to act against Amazon, because Amazon drives a global race to the bottom which allows it to play local and national jurisdictions against each other, promising employment in one location if certain demands are met in regards to subsidies or taxes or labour law. Consequently, Amazon creates and exploits cracks in societies’ social contracts, allowing the corporation to operate in our countries without taking seriously the things that we expect businesses to do in return for using the infrastructure, both physical and social, that we taxpayers and citizens have built over generations.

So the reason we organised this campaign is in part related to the fact there had not previously been this collective opposition at the level at which Amazon itself operates. Our analysis was that if you want to meet Amazon’s power, you have to meet its scale and that’s at the transnational level.

But our campaign is not only transnational, it’s also intersectional. It’s not just organising at the level which Amazon itself operates, it’s also about linking struggles that are factually connected, but are not necessarily connected in terms of the activism that you see.

This is why the Make Amazon Pay coalition includes not only workers and trade unions, but also environmentalists and organizers for tax, data, and racial justice. Mobilizing together, we’re taking on the exploitation of labour, the environment and the social contract all at once.

And what about in terms of climate? What is the relationship between Amazon and climate?

Amazon clearly places profit before our planet, and you see that in a number of ways.

The most obvious of ways is the rapid expansion of Amazon’s shipping and logistics business, which places an incredible strain on the environment.

While Amazon’s impact on the climate has always been destructive, at least they used to consolidate their deliveries, meaning they’d have a lot of packages going out in one van for example.

When Amazon Prime’s delivery service started to emerge a number of years ago, that started to change radically in order to ensure that people would get their package within a day. I understand how that’s a great service, but the shadow side is obviously immense when it comes to environmental impacts.

That increases the footprint of Amazon’s delivery industry, but it also leads to congestion in big cities and that of itself is a terrible impact not only for the environment, but also for the health of urban populations.

Amazon Web Services, too, are a big emitter, and I don’t think this is on everyone’s radar. People are using these AWS’ web services more and more around the world, so Amazon has to move very quickly towards renewable energy to power the services that it offers, and it has committed to doing so. But Greenpeace has found that it has completely failed to make true on its promises today. 88 per cent of the energy used to power Amazon Web Services is unsustainable, and that is by its own standards.

That is a disaster for a company in such a monopoly position. They have to green radically and as soon as possible.

But, evidently, we cannot rely on Jeff Bezos to achieve this. Long-standing, large scale corporate failure with respect to sustainability makes it clear that corporations like Amazon need to be coerced to make their business models environmentally sustainable. It needs to be regulated by public officials and elected representatives. And that’s why this open letter is so encouraging. We’ve seen a massive amount of support from parliamentarians from across the world, and I think it really speaks to a growing awareness that we need dramatic change in the way our societies function.

I remember there was a big launch of the Bezos Earth Fund back in February. What is your take on that?

It’s true that some corporations pay lip service to the importance of tackling climate change, and Amazon is no exception.

There are billions in the Bezos fund, and that’s an effort to make the company look good. While in effect, if you look between 2018 and 2019 alone, its footprint increased by 15 per cent.

Amazon recognises in its public statements that climate change is real, that it needs to be addressed. For a corporation of their size, they have relatively ambitious targets.

But at the same time, it continues to be a high-emissions business and continues to have sweetheart deals, particularly with their web services, with big oil as they facilitate the escalation of extraction.

Obviously what we see here is public statements in support of tackling climate change with ambitious goals, but on the other hand, as outlined here in this Greenpeace report, they have failed to deliver on their own promises. Worse still, they have a business model that actually accelerates the climate crisis.

And while Amazon have invested in tackling the climate crisis, they don’t offer any clear path towards decarbonisation itself. So what is the worth of their words if it’s not backed up by their actions?

We have to be skeptical and call this out for what it is. First of all, it’s ultimately inconsequential to recognise climate change while you allow business to continuously accelerate it.

Secondly, I think it’s even worse: as they’re running a greenwashing operation. In fact, it’s one of the biggest greenwashing operations that I have ever heard of.

So what kind of action are you calling for?

We brought together about over 50 unions, environmental groups and other social justice organisations around the world that together proceeded to formulate 25 common demands, broken down around three dimensions – make Amazon pay its workers, make Amazon pay for its climate impact, and make Amazon pay back to society.

From a climate perspective, most immediately it would be that they have to stop funding climate change denial. They have to transition quickly in not only their logistics industry, but also in their cloud business to agree to a sustainable business model and that means, for example, when it comes to shipping, moving to an electric fleet of delivery vehicles.

Our demand for zero emissions by 2030 comes from Amazon workers themselves, organized in Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. They represent mostly tech workers, and they demand that their employer moves in this direction.

What I think is also important to realise that even if Amazon’s own operations were to be completely green, then still in its supply chain it might be responsible for backward linkages that are also very polluting. We have to be vigilant that the corporation doesn’t pretend that by moving towards an electrical fleet of vehicles, however encouraging, would offset Amazon’s overall, global impact on the environment.

Another important Common Demand regarding the climate stipulates that Amazon’s transition towards sustainability must happen along Just Transition lines, which is to say its workers need to not only be actively included in this transition, but to help shape the process.

Amazon should also act to address environmental and racial injustice, as research shows that the communities most impacted by Amazon’s pollution are from neighbourhboods that are overwhelming Black and other minority populations.

Finally, you cannot have environmental justice without tax justice. Rampant tax abuse by transnational corporations like Amazon adds money to private fortunes of the few, rather than directing it towards the public good in interest of the many. If we want governments to be able to tackle the climate crisis that affects us all, they need sufficient tax revenue to do so. 

To fight climate change, governments must make Amazon pay its taxes. That’s as simple as it is.

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Categories: Interview