By Fern Bromley (’22)
In the past decade, very few companies have experienced such a large amount of growth and cultural permeation as Amazon. Amazon and its Prime membership option have become such a large part of American culture that the latter almost serves as a verb: if one needs to buy something, they can “Prime” it. This is allusive to Prime’s offer of free two-day shipping and the almost shocking level of convenience that comes with it. Unfortunately, increased convenience can have alarming environmental implications, with sustainability becoming a lesser priority. Amazon seems to put little effort into keeping their business practices sustainable; on top of that, barely enough is done to help their customers make any environmentally conscious choices.
What slips from people’s minds when they are able to easily acquire items at the click of a button? One result is that with such fast and complimentary shipping, individuals can mindlessly order things. When such costs are part of the shopping experience, customers might try and put as many things into their online cart as possible before ordering to reduce the amount spent on shipping. With the benefits of Prime allowing multiple shipments to pose no financial burden on the consumer, parcels are being ordered left and right with little regard for how much packaging material is being used.
Moving these packages across the globe straight to people’s doorsteps requires numerous vehicles that all have different, specific destinations. In addition, the large numbers of packages cannot be consolidated into large vehicles making relatively infrequent trips; instead, packages are constantly being sent out, everything located on planes or trucks dispatched to the thousands of locations that must be reached.
There is a tremendous environmental impact associated with the speedy, large-scale transportation of packages. With the increased demand for products due to lowered costs on the side of the consumer, more vehicles are used to deliver them, corresponding to more fossil fuel-related emissions. In 2017, Amazon reportedly shipped over 5 billion items just with Prime; the fuel, plastic, and cardboard consumption related to these packages alone is staggering, which is bound to have numerous adverse effects on the environment and human health. These consequences include acid rain, respiratory illness, and increased atmospheric temperature. The existence of these environmental effects that must later be paid for through costs associated with medical bills and cleanup results in environmental externalities, costs not included in the price paid directly for the product.
Amazon has little information about its sustainability efforts easily accessible on its website. On its “Sustainability” page, the packaging section, for example, does not contain substance about any efforts made to reduce waste or use recyclable materials for packaging; it instead talks about the Frustration-Free Packaging Program. This initiative introduces “easy-to-open, 100% recyclable packaging.” While the packages are wholly recyclable, the program requires an opt-in on part of the customer and its advertisements focus on usability as opposed to eco-friendliness. This form of packing is also not yet available with all of Amazon’s products due to the lack of ability to regulate many third-party sellers.
With this in mind, Amazon has made other investments in external programs aiming for sustainability, such as the Closed Loop Fund. This fund focuses on increasing accessibility to curbside recycling; these efforts concern Amazon because they are committed “to minimizing waste and making it easier for customers and communities to recycle.” Although it is always positive to increase recycling efforts, especially with material consumerism on the rise, Amazon has a responsibility as an industry leader to increase sustainability within their own walls before rallying others.
This all raises the larger question of who is responsible for consumption-related pollution. Should the consumer buy less and search for (and only engage with) environmentally-friendly options, or must companies assume the role of being sustainable entities in the first place? Considering that Amazon is engaging in activities that directly contribute to climate change and environmental degradation every day, they should be held more accountable. For example, recent efforts condemning the sale of single-use plastic products, including plastic straws and bags, have resulted in consumers taking on financial responsibility and social scorn. It is important to remember the producer’s role in limiting how much pollution results from their products, despite the consumer’s clear role in waste generation. Amazon’s lack of accountability is augmented by their aforementioned opacity concerning sustainability. The company publishes very little information about its environmental impact, and does not release any easily accessible form of a sustainability or environmental impact report, making it difficult for the public to condemn Amazon’s actions.
As a company, Amazon appears to be aiming to be the epitome of customer service as opposed to an environmentally conscious corporation. While it is crucial for everyone to do their part, especially consumers that make the active decision to harm the environment, enormous companies being able to do what they want no matter the potential damage while condemning consumer activity is unacceptable.
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