Amazon is the leading online retailer, and while they appear to be making strides to lessen their environmental impacts, they are vulnerable to a wide range of criticisms. From products to packaging and shipping initiatives, Amazon appears to be getting greener. According to Adobe Holiday Data Amazon is the top retailer of holiday gifts in terms of social media buzz in 2014. Amazon is an online giant, they ship an average of 3,300,000 boxes per day, with revenues of almost $75 billion in 2013. The company is undeniably popular and successful, but are they green? Here is a summary of their green initiatives followed by criticisms.
Amazon is the king of online retailing and a number of independent researchers have demonstrated that online shopping is a greener option than visiting retail outlets. Amazon is benefiting from the global trend of consistent year over year growth of online sales.
The fact that Amazon conducts its transactions online contributes to the company’ smaller footprint compared to retail stores. Further, the fact that they do not have retail outlets means that they do not use all the energy and other resources typically associated with traditional brick and mortar stores.
Despite the benefits of online shopping, there is a downside. It generates two and a half times more packaging than goods bought in a store. However, to address this concern, Amazon is at the forefront of greener packaging initiatives. Most Amazon orders are shipped in corrugated containers which contain 43 percent recovered fiber content. Once used, these containers are 100 percent recyclable for use in the manufacture of other paper products.
Amazon’s larger products use paper packing materials that are 100 percent recyclable and are made from 50 percent recycled content. The air-filled pillows that are sometimes used to protect items in Amazon shipments are 100 percent recyclable and non-toxic.
In 2011, Amazon tripled the number of items shipped under its “Frustration-Free Packaging” initiative. Amazon leverages its buying power and pushes suppliers to cut out excessive packaging. This both reduces waste and lowers shipping costs.
Amazon is an innovative leader when it comes to shipping. More sustainable shipping options run the gamut, from massive transoceanic ships to small zero-emission vehicles. The growth of more sustainable shipping options can provide a far greener alternative to traditional in-store shopping. The Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) is a great example of industry working to lower the emissions from the transportation of goods and services.
In 2010, Amazon was granted a patent for “environmentally conscious electronic transactions.” This gives customers the option of less carbon intensive shipping, albeit slower and more expensive than traditional shipping. Lower emissions shipping is achieved by using hybrid or hydrogen-powered vehicles that make more stops to make each delivery route more energy efficient. These vehicles also travel at night to avoid congestion in cities during the day.
In 2013, Amazon announced a truly revolutionary technology that could radically change the way packages are delivered. They announced that they will be using battery-powered drones to deliver packages. These drones have no emissions, and they are much more efficient at delivering products than traditional shipping mediums.
What you buy largely influences the footprint of purchasing. Amazon has two greener product options: one is Vine.com and the other is Amazon Green.
Vine.com is part of Quidsi network, which was bought by Amazon back in 2010. Vine.com is a shopping site that sells only green products, including organic food, apparel, accessories and cleaning supplies made by companies such as Seventh Generation, Method, and Burt’s Bees. Vine.com has a green philosophy, which means the products it carries are, “made with healthy, environmentally sound ingredients and materials [and] at its core, is better for you and better for the planet.”
- Qualifying green products must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Made from sustainable materials
- Energy efficient, natural (minimal processing)
- Organic, designed to remove toxins
- Powered by renewable energy
- Reusable, or water efficient
There is also a “shop local” feature that allows shoppers to browse green products made within 100 miles of their selected city.
Amazon Green is a cross-category program of green products. It also includes a list of products that customers have selected as the best green products offered by Amazon. There are a number of products that meet U.S. environmental rating systems, including EPEAT® (the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), ENERGY STAR®, WaterSense and USDA Organic.
In-house sustainability efforts
Amazon has energy efficient buildings and the company has launched an internal initiative to improve environmental and energy performance. Through what is known as the Kaizen program (Japanese for “change for the better”), Amazon employees work together to identify and implement environmental and energy initiatives across all parts of the company. Through this program, Amazon employees identify waste and design alternative solutions that are more energy efficient.
Amazon has a number of green buildings, including those that comprise their corporate headquarters in Seattle. The buildings’ interior employs salvaged and locally sourced woods, as well as energy-efficient lighting. These buildings also have composting and recycling facilities. The US Green Building Council has awarded six of these buildings with LEED Gold certification for sustainable design and construction methods. In addition, Amazon.de’s corporate offices in Munich, Germany have been Gold-certified as environmentally friendly by the German Sustainable Building Council, based on their energy-efficient interiors and use of sustainable building materials.The greening of Amazon’s buildings also extends to many of Amazon’s fulfillment centers around the world.
In the summer of 2014, Amazon Web Services announced the Amazon Climate Research Grant Program. In support of the US Government’s Climate Action Plan and the White House Climate Data Initiative, AWS has committed to award a total of 50 million core hours of supercomputing using Amazon EC2 Spot Instances (with training and guidance from the AWS Scientific Computing team) to apply to research on better understanding and mitigation of climate change.
Despite these efforts, 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 their operations invite scrutiny and demand leadership. To date, the company has demonstrated an ongoing lack of transparency on environmental issues. Amazons 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.
A recent addition may signal that Amazon is preparing to get serious about sustainability. The company recently hired Kara Hartnett Hurst, CEO of The Sustainability Consortium, to be the company’s first sustainability executive. Prior to beginning her work at Amazon in October, she had amassed more than two decades of experience in tech and sustainability. Perhaps, like Apple’s hiring of former EPA head Lisa Jackson, the hiring of Hurst will prove to be a turning point for Amazon.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Soumit Nandi, courtesy flickr