Politics of Poverty

Reimagining Amazon’s sustainability agenda

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amazon shareholders general meeting sustainability advisors Oxfam joined a group of sustainably responsible investors at Amazon's annual general meeting of shareholders last month. Photo: Paloma Muñoz

Same-day delivery reimagined customer service. What if the retail giant reimagined its commitment to human rights?

Co-written with Diana Kearney, an advocacy advisor at Oxfam America, and Paloma Muñoz, director of the Investor Alliance for Human Rights.

We almost didn’t get in.

Back in late May, Amazon shareholders met in Seattle, WA for their annual meeting. As shareholders of the company ourselves, we were there to put the welfare of people and the planet at the heart of Amazon’s global business model.

Thankfully, we weren’t alone. We were joined by a coalition of like-minded shareholders through the Investor Alliance for Human Rights. And while Amazon’s security guards initially prevented us from entering, we ultimately made our voices heard by calling on the company to take climate change, human rights, and sustainability more seriously.

Why Amazon?

Amazon’s footprint is vast. It’s the world’s most valuable company, reaching into more countries and serving more customers than any other. That means its operations extend into virtually every corner of the globe—fueled by suppliers that help make possible the products and services so many of us purchase online every day.

But as Amazon changes the way we think about work and business innovation, this doesn’t automatically translate into a better life for its workers, American consumers, and communities abroad. Just ask the seafood processing workers in Thailand who help supply food to stores across the US at Amazon-owned Whole Foods if they have enough food to eat (they don’t).

The truth is that the company has no human rights policy to guide its growth. Although the company recently committed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions through its Shipment Zero initiative, Amazon still fails to meaningfully document its human rights impacts. And those seafood workers in the Whole Foods supply chain don’t have the formal ability to file grievances about their day-to-day work.

Investors and stakeholders unite

Our continuing engagement with Amazon has the potential to lead to lasting change. That’s why we joined a large group of investors—in coordination with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility—to push the company on its responsibility to respect people and the planet at this year’s annual shareholders meeting.

Investors filed a number of resolutions putting the company on notice. They covered a range of environmental, social, and governance concerns—including how Amazon plans to respond to climate change disruptions and reduce food waste. It was the highest number of proposals filed at any company this shareholder season. And the media, other Amazon investors, and the company’s own employees took note.

Several of us were almost left out of the meeting because company officials said our paperwork was missing a specific word—this was a first (and we’ve been to a lot of shareholder meetings). When it finally came time to hear directly from investors during the one-hour meeting, its board spoke with a consumer who wanted to return her items rather than discuss climate change and human rights in depth.

The meeting felt chaotic. It seemed like a missed opportunity for the company to show that it’s serious about social justice and the welfare of workers. If there were concrete commitments we could point to, we would happily celebrate those efforts. But we’d like to see Amazon give more investors and relevant stakeholders the space to voice concerns and solutions. The company could use that input to shape their strategy for equitable and responsible growth.

Our Amazon wishlist

So what exactly are we asking Amazon to do?

  1. Engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by Amazon’s operations;
  2. Develop a public facing human rights policy that is adopted at the highest levels of the company;
  3. Create a clear plan to implement and publish how they are doing, known as human rights due diligence efforts; and
  4. Follow through on these implementation plans, and continually monitor, update, and disclose their progress (or lack there of).

The truth is we’re not asking Amazon to break new ground. Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Microsoft, Walmart, and Dutch supermarket, Albert Heijn, have all shown that embracing a new approach to human rights is well within a company’s reach. Regardless of what Amazon does moving forward, one thing is clear: Our coalition is dedicated to ensuring that Amazon upholds its responsibilities to workers, farmers, women, and all other communities impacted by their extensive operations. To that end, we will continue to drum up media coverage, engage the general public, pursue meetings, and where necessary, file shareholder resolutions.

This is just the beginning.

P.S. For a deeper look into what we are asking of Amazon and food retailers, check out our blog on Hitting the Road to End Human Suffering.

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