THE BEZOS EARTH FUND:
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Jeff Bezos is the founder of Amazon, and one of the richest men on Earth, possessing a staggering net worth of $184 billion. Whilst he is revered by some as a genius with an unparalleled work ethic, he has also been subject to increasing criticism over the years, for which there are various reasons.
First, Amazon barely pays any tax, which is inconceivable given how big of a corporation it is. Second, Amazon employees around the world face dreadful work conditions. To name a few of the most prominent issues, Amazon has an extremely ambitious standard for its warehouse workers, expecting them to scan over 300 items an hour, and the failure to reach this standard leads to penalties; some staff members reported having to urinate in bottles because they felt they did not have enough time for a bathroom break; reports of abnormal amounts of workplace injuries abound, and Amazon has been actively preventing its workers from unionising. Things have only gotten worse since the start of the pandemic, with employees being expected to work longer and harder, whilst exposing themselves to the increased risk of the deadly virus due to the often unsanitary work environments, and getting laughably small bonuses in return. In the meantime, as people grew more dependent on Amazon over the course of 2020, Bezos became around $50 billion richer.
Last but not least, Amazon has come under fire repeatedly for its enormous carbon footprint, which is unsurprising given that the company relies heavily on carbon-producing modes of transportation (with the transport industry being one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, more so as Amazon delivers 3.5 billion packages annually). Additional emphasis must be placed on the sheer size of Amazon: the company’s carbon footprint is greater than two-thirds of all countries . For instance, in 2018 it emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere – roughly equal to the annual emissions of Norway. In addition, the company contributes greatly to the normalisation of unsustainable practices, such as fast fashion, “retail therapy”, over-packaging, and mass production.
Notwithstanding the above, Bezos has recently been praised for revealing the first few organisations to benefit from his ambitious Earth Fund, which will ultimately see him donate $10 billion to climate change-tackling organisations. Overall, Bezos gave away almost $800 million to 16 recipients. This has made him the biggest supporter of climate change activism in the world, which is celebrated by some as an incredible show of altruism and deep understanding of the pertinence of climate change as an issue. However, is it really the progressive step Bezos wants it to be seen as?
It is undeniable that the donation is extremely generous. In addition, it is likely to inspire other corporations and extremely wealthy individuals to do the same, not to mention the fact that the donation has directed much needed media attention to the issue of climate change. Another great aspect of the donation is that a balance appears to have been struck between different types of causes: some of the money will go to wildlife conservation efforts, some will be donated to organisations that support grassroots movements and local communities worldwide, a significant proportion will be given to entities involved in seeking innovative solutions to energy generation and groups advocating for a green economy and increased sustainability. Nevertheless, a painfully obvious oversight is worth mentioning: grassroots movements are overlooked. Some of the organisations on the list support such movements, but not all of the money will reach frontline workers. The Fund favoured big and established organisations, which often use a significant proportion of the money for admin costs. In the meantime, the rest of the world has been waking up to the urgent need to support indigenous climate activists, who are often on the frontline of climate change, yet fail to receive the same level of attention. Perhaps the next step in the donation process could highlight indigenous efforts more prominently.
Furthermore, it is clear from inspecting the list that many of the organisations aim to tackle the effects of climate change, not its cause. For example, Bezos donated a significant amount to wildlife conservation efforts – yet there would have been less need for conservation if the root cause of climate change – greenhouse gas emissions – was tackled. Much of the money was donated to research-based organisations, whose aim is to seek and develop sustainable energy solutions. This field of work is crucial in the fight against climate change. However, the urgency of the situation means that, unfortunately, the development of “cleaner” technology is not enough: major greenhouse gas emitters simply must emit less greenhouse gas – and they must do so as soon as possible. Of course, such rhetoric is not convenient for Bezos, who, for the purposes of his donations, seems blissfully unaware of the fact that big corporations (such as Amazon) are the major emitters. For instance, despite green pledges, in 2019 Amazon’s carbon footprint grew 15%, as the online shopping giant said it emitted 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 13 coal burning power plants running for a year.
Indeed, when inspected from this angle, Bezos’ donation appears useless in the face of the damage done by his own company, which begs the question: why is he donating to the cause in the first place? The answer may be disappointingly obvious – greenwashing. Anand Giridharadas, author of ‘Winner Takes All’, emerged as one of the chief critics of this recent spate of billionaire philanthropy. Giridharadas writes that “for all their talk of changing the world through charitable giving, what elites offer is a ‘fake change’ that seeks to maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix — and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off. Thus their do-gooding is an accomplice to greater, if more invisible, harm”. It is likely that Bezos is trying to improve his image: given the accusations above, Amazon would want it to appear that the company, as well as Bezos himself, support all the right causes – otherwise they risk losing customers, since many people are growing disillusioned with the company’s practices. It seems especially convenient that the announcement came shortly before the start of the Black Friday sales – which is an extremely profitable time for Amazon, and, incidentally, is majorly unsustainable and damaging to the climate, and the environment.
Unfortunately, in reality, Bezos does not seem to support the cause; otherwise, he would have focused on making Amazon 100% sustainable as a first step, before resorting to giving money to third party organisations. This could have been a more effective way of tackling climate change – but is out of the question, since unsustainable practices is how Amazon makes its money. Albeit announcing its commitment to fighting climate change in September 2019, the human and environmental cost of practices such as Amazon Prime’s free one-day shipping diametrically oppose the company’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to be carbon-neutral by 2040. In 2019 Amazon generated 211 million kilos of plastic waste from the packaging on its goods, as reported by Oceana, a US-based nonprofit which campaigns against the pollution of the world’s seas. The report calculates that, if laid out, the so-called air pillows used to protect the contents of parcels would circle the earth 500 times. And the growth in online sales during the pandemic is expected to have increased Amazon’s pollution footprint by about a third. This fact becomes even more sobering when it is recalled that Amazon works directly with oil and gas companies, lobbies governments in favour of its unsustainable policies, and, even more shockingly, has been accused of sponsoring climate change denying think tanks.
The amount itself can be scrutinized. $10 billion sounds like a tremendous amount of money to an average (and even not so average) person. However, what is $10 billion to a man who is projected to become the world’s first trillionaire within the next decade? Bezos possesses more money than several rich countries combined. He could give away over half of his money and still be incomprehensibly rich, yet he fails to take care of his own employees – let alone the planet. In light of Amazon’s poor human rights and environmental record, Bezos is using his wealth as an instrument to erase his responsibility, and the world cannot turn a blind eye to this self-serving hypocrisy.
Dominika is a Russian Londoner who grew up in Latvia. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in Public International Law in Amsterdam, after which she will return to London to complete her legal studies, with the ultimate goal of becoming a barrister. Her aim is to utilise her legal career as a tool for the amelioration of social injustice around the world. Her main interests lie in human rights, environmental law, and refugee protection. She is infinitely inspired by cultural diversity, and spends much of her spare time traveling.