In October, CEOs from the world’s biggest companies, including Amazon, made waves when they amended the longstanding Business Roundtable statement of purpose, declaring that the purpose of business is more than to generate wealth, and proclaiming boldly that corporations must care for all stakeholders and communities in which they operate.
Within weeks of this statement, Amazon did the opposite. It poured a record amount of cash into Seattle’s City Council elections, seeking to elect a more business-friendly council. While some could argue that Amazon’s announcement on carbon neutrality this past quarter was a big step in the right direction, it set a goal to achieve this by 2040. This is completely deaf to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which calls for such progress to be made by 2030. And even 2030 is too long considering far more ambitious cuts to carbon emissions are needed to prevent catastrophic warming, according to a recent Washington Post report on new U.N. research. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Last month, Bezos’ lack of interest in environmental and social good saw him punted from Harvard Business Review’s prestigious 2019 list of the top 100 CEOs in the world for one simple reason: According to HBR, “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has been the top CEO every year since 2014 on the basis of financial performance alone, failed to make this year’s list owing to Amazon’s relatively low ESG scores.” ESG stands for environmental social governance.
Amazon has repeatedly had the opportunity to show innovation on topics beyond operational excellence and technology, yet it fails to do so and remains obsessively focused on the pursuit of maximizing shareholder wealth. Its recent addition of six new members to its “S-team” (short for senior leadership team), is further proof that environmental, community, and social responsibility are nowhere near the top of its list of priorities.
Now with 22 people on the S-team, every member, other than its senior vice president of human resources, has a direct tie to revenue generation, with zero representation from a sustainability or corporate responsibility leader. While Amazon does have an impressive sustainability team within the company, its lack of inclusion on the S-team level shows that Amazon’s priorities lie in worldwide growth of higher-profit business lines: AWS, Alexa, subscriptions, Prime.
Amazon had the opportunity to show it is committed to more than money, and doing so would have helped it build customer loyalty during a time it is losing its positive brand image. Surely the inclusion of one sustainability officer at the S-team level would not break Bezos’ workload or Amazon’s growth strategy, and in fact, the opposite is likely true.
Sustainability initiatives have done more than reduce the harm companies create, and have even made smart business at companies like Microsoft, Citigroup, Google, Kering, Patagonia and hundreds more – all of which also have sustainability officers. The research on this topic strongly indicates that prioritizing sustainability increases value for all stakeholders, including shareholders According to Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever who recently addressed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Business Forum, investing to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals represents “the biggest business opportunity we’ve ever seen in the history of mankind.”
As a proud Seattleite who takes pride in our beautiful environment, innovative world-changers, and progressive societal beliefs, I’m increasingly disappointed that Amazon continues its rapid growth at the expense of the environment and its community, consistently missing opportunity after opportunity to show that it is at least starting to change. And I can’t help but wonder that if just 1/23rd of Amazon’s innovative spirit was unleashed to minimize the negative consequences of capitalism on the planet, and humans’ ability to create stable and fair governments on it, then Amazon could build employee, consumer, and government goodwill that would contribute to a healthier society and economy, driving value to all stakeholders, and not just shareholders.
Mark Horoszowski is CEO at MovingWorlds, a social enterprise helping corporations develop scalable social impact programs and world-positive leaders. He also lectures on Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of Washington.
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