Bezos the billionaire hero? Nope.

March 4, 2020
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal

The word greenwashing is believed to have come about in the 1980s when environmentalist Jay Westerveld was staying at a resort in the Pacific and read a sign that asked him to place his towels on a rack (don’t wash) or on the floor (replace). The notice continued along the of stating that millions of litres of water could be saved with less towel washing (as well as the costs borne by the company of course!). Across the road however, the hotel was expanding and building more bungalows on cleared land. This was greenwashing.

Greenwashing existed before then of course. It was sometimes known as eco-pornography during the 60s (I feel that would have a different meaning now and with the world’s most popular adult website bizarre venture into ocean sustainability it appears the word has in itself become a niche!). Greenwashing really found its ground when major oil companies tried to greenify their image. Chevron’s egregious “People Do” campaign during this time used small & cheap environmental campaigns by their employees (protecting bears, butterflies, and sea turtles) to help cover up their oil drilling and financial support for anti-environmentalism. It’s a tactic these conglomerates still employ today. Shell, the creator of the internal warning on warming in 1991, has been releasing ads of car races running on renewables and joined the Alliance To End Plastic Waste whilst betting on the expansion of plastics over the coming decades. Renewable energy doesn’t figure on the balance statement and barely exists in the annual report. BP just announced a 2050 carbon neutral plan-without-a-plan whilst stating they will continue to grow their oil and gas business. And Aramco, Saudi oil and the world’s most profitable company, has been busy with a blitz and rebrand to convince the public it’s not so bad (spoiler: it is).

Greenwashing has only gotten more complex since it was coined. It’s often more subtle now. You can’t just slap a quick ad together of people smiling and running through fields whilst you destroy the planet. Marketing has gotten much better. We live in a world where one of our modern skills is learning to distinguish real news, whilst analyzing news sources, from the millions of pieces of misinformation, missing context, unsourced data and blatant lies. Greenwashing (and social impact for that matter) is the same. Everything needs to be triple checked, cross referenced and understood in context. It’s something we need to teach and learn.

And Bezos is a lesson.

His $10 billion climate pledge has gained praise across the media, throughout social posts, by influencers and bloggers alike. Bezos is going to save earth. (He’s not.) Bezos cash is what we’ve been waiting for. (It’s not.)

Bezos is in charge of Amazon, Whole Foods and Blue Origin. His products and services span from fast consumer goods, to food, to technology services and space travel.

Billions

Us humans have quite a bit of trouble understanding the difference between a million and a billion so let’s get that right first as it’s an enormous difference.

One million seconds is 11.5 days whilst one billion seconds is 31.5 years.

A popular tweet recently said: If you worked every single day, making $5000/day, from the time Columbus sailed to America (1492), to the time you are reading this tweet, you would still not be a billionaire, and you would still have less money than Jeff Bezos makes in a week.

It’s true. It would take you 562 years to earn one billion dollars. Bezos is worth $137 billion. So that would take you 76,994 years earning $5,000 per day, every single day, year round. I don’t believe I know anyone who earns that much per day, and most of us would be very lucky to make that per month, but let’s roll with it.

Business Insider calculated Bezos’ pay using his 2017 and 2018 net worth difference and found he makes approximately $149,353 a minute. Per minute. I feel fairly confident stating that everyone reading this is far, far closer to losing everything and experiencing homelessness, than becoming a billionaire. You don’t earn billions ethically and sustainably; it’s simply not possible in our current world.

So, he gave ten billion. Why shouldn’t we praise it as much as we collectively have?

Isn’t it still a lot of money?

Absolutely. But in context it’s only 7% of his net worth. With a net worth of $137 billion dollars, he’s the richest person in the world. Plenty of us give away far more than that of our net worth and it’s so much harder to do so when you earn small salaries like most of us do. Giving away 10% of your $100,000 is a huge dent. Giving away 10% of your billion isn’t noticeable in any way.

Even then, the fund pledges to literally save the planet. It’s going to require a hell of a lot more. To put it in context with our crisis:

The lowest cost scenario for decarbonizing the planet’s energy systems would cost, up front, $73 trillion dollars. 10 billion is less than one-seven-thousandth of this.

Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal to address climate change and justice, is priced at $16 trillion. Elizabeth Warren’s is $10 trillion. One trillion is one thousand billion. Bezos’ pledge is 0.0625% of what we would need for the Sander’s plan.

According to the World Bank, the impact of extreme natural disasters is equivalent to a global $520 billion loss in annual consumption, and forces some 26 million people into poverty each year.

China is set to invest $100 billion in facilities that turn crude oil into chemicals over the next five years.

The USA ideally needs to rebuild its electric grid. That would cost approximately $5 trillion.

There is talk of creating a North Sea Enclosure Dyke that would protect an approximately 25 million Europeans from rising sea levels. Based on existing projects, the scientists estimate the cost of building it between €250bn and €500bn ($275 – $550 billion).

10 billion is a lot of money. But it’s also not going to do a whole lot.

Isn’t it good to just donate money though?

If you care about democracy and social policy, no. I highly, highly recommend reading Winners Take All as it explains this concept far more thoroughly and eloquently whilst being an excellent read. We have a real problem in the world where we’ve made it very comfortable and justifiable – internally and externally – for a tiny portion of people to make billions of dollars through destruction and exploited labor (whether we like the end result of computers, phones or fast shopping doesn’t matter) and then spend far less than they make on the other side to “do good” in whichever way they please.

We don’t have any say over this do-gooding just as we had no say over the original destruction in the supply chain to create unsustainable goods and services. We simply have to hope that our billionaires spend money in places we think is helpful. Many don’t of course. Many do terrible things on both sides of the coin. But some try to do good things. They choose what they’re passionate about and fail or succeed to some extent.

They don’t advocate for the kinds of taxes billionaires should have. They don’t lobby for policies that would see this enormous wealth, built off the backs of people, distributed more fairly after say, 100 million dollars. Billionaires leverage our public goods enormously; our infrastructure, government, research and education. They’re not out there talking about a tax on capital rather than income, or a graduated wealth tax. Under the growth of billionaires, inequality has greatly increased.

It’s not a true democracy to run the system this way. None of us can buy influence; billionaires can. That brand of capitalism isn’t one that works for the majority of us. Bezos gets to buy influence and exert power. We don’t.

Does he even do business with fossil fuel companies?

Yes. Amazon explicitly markets to, and creates solutions for, fossil fuel clients. The solutions they make are targeted to help locate new fossil fuel deposits.

If you were truly serious about climate change, you would reject these clients and not develop products for them. There are lots of small businesses that already do this (like ours!). It’s hard work and you eliminate a lot of money initially but Amazon makes plenty and it can step up as a multi-billion dollar organization. If Amazon did it, it would cause Microsoft and other tech companies to reconsider their partnerships too.

Bezos the billionaire hero? Nope. - Nowhere & Everywhere - Environment Climate Change Pledge - Bezos is not a hero (social impact)
Bezos the billionaire hero? Nope. - Nowhere & Everywhere - Environment Climate Change Pledge - Bezos is not a hero (social impact)

What else?

 

He’s got a problem with ethical labor

Bezos has issues at Amazon. There’s the biggest issue of gruelling labor; the stories that come out of Amazon warehouses are atrocious. The company was also previously well known for low wages but after long public criticism and the Fight for $15 movement including a bill by Bernie Sanders titled the Stop BEZOS Act, it moved to pay it’s workers a minimum of $15 per hour. This isn’t a small startup, it’s a multi-billion dollar company.

There’s been a growing movement to get the company to act on the climate crisis too. Whilst making climate pledges it’s also worthwhile to not try to fire people for speaking out.

Support of climate denying groups

Not sponsoring climate denying groups helps; particularly when you’re looking to act on the issue. Amazon has sponsored the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank that promotes climate change denial.

Bezos has literally every resource he could ever want at his fingertips. I imagine one human being in a job, or an AI script, would be able to evaluate Amazon’s external funding as it’s approved and make sure it’s not going to climate denying. Simple.

Another quick fix? Stop turning up at oil and gas conferences. Andrew Jassy, the Amazon Web Services (AWS) chief executive, was reported as telling an oil and gas conference that “A lot of the things that we have built and released recently have been very much informed by conversations with our oil and gas customers and partners.”

Slow renewables transition

Amazon should be – and has the resources to – switching far faster to renewable energy to power its operations. A Greenpeace investigation found that Amazon data centres in Virginia, where the most of the cloud infrastructure is located, are powered by only 12 percent renewable energy.

In 2014, Amazon vaguely committed to a “long-term commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure footprint.” Other huge companies have already hit the goal. Google (and it bears repeating I do not love Google at all), spent years making their infrastructure far more energy efficient (50% more than the industry average according to them) which is something often overlooked.

Plastic packaging

Amazon has been partly responsible for a packaging onslaught over the years. This is of course also directly related to hyperconsumerism but Amazon has barely lifted a finger in attempting to address this huge problem. And it’s not just their independent retailers; it’s also the way they pack and ship their goods. And their Whole Foods division where plenty of it appears. It could have specialists between procurement, sustainability and innovation working on this every day for months if they wanted. This has to be addressed. Once we have huge market players leading the way (genuinely and truly sustainably) in this space it will make it much more accessible for all of the other businesses too.

Business model

The business model is the problem. It’s something we repeat over and over again. It doesn’t matter what H&M do for example, until they change their business model. The same goes for Amazon. Change the Amazon business model so that it doesn’t fuel hyper-consumerism. Is this hard? Absolutely. Will you make a few less billion? Good chance depending on how you do it. Is it doable and of high priority for society? Yes.

Logistics

The Amazon shopping business is a logistics business. And it’s completely unsustainable. Amazon ships 10 billion items a year. In a country the size of America, Prime is a terrible business practise. It needs to overhaul logistics and customer expectations (that it created). Amazon has ordered 100,00 electric trucks (from startup Rivian) which helps in the consumption of energy in running them. Of course, a few months prior to the order Amazon invested $700 million in the company.

Amazon also has a goal to make just half of all shipments net-zero by 2030.
It has the ability to do this much quicker. Focus on this Bezos. This is one of the easiest things we can do.

Taxes

It would help if Amazon first paid them properly like the rest of us. Bezos is a billionaire and billionaires have undue influence over nearly anything they want. In 2018 Amazon posted a profit of $11.2 billion. Instead of paying the statutory 21% income tax rate, it reported a $129 million federal income tax rebate for the year; a tax rate of -1%.

So, lobby to close loopholes, end subsidies and pay proper taxes as a global, multi-billion dollar company.

And then lobby for a tax on pollution. Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions are nearly the same as the emissions of Switzerland or Denmark.

Passion projects

Space is great. I get it. But we don’t need a second plant. We need to fix what we’ve done to this one. Acknowledging it’s a crisis and then choosing to spend billions on non-essential projects is absurd.

Also… mansions. Nobody needs to live in one. Absolutely nobody. According to the Land Report (a publication that tracks land ownership), Bezos is America’s 25th largest landowner. In a striking contrast, just before the climate pledge announcement, Bezos bought up another monstrous home; a property in Los Angeles with a whopping $165 million price tag.

Come on billionaires, there is literally zero need for this unless you’re intending to home and provide social services to people who can’t afford their own safe spaces. If this is an ego match; stop it. Challenge yourself by limiting your home ownership to three homes worth less than $10 million each. Or maybe spend some time in the real world where we all live in normal spaces.

So what should we do?

You can say an inner little thank you if it’s important to you. We can still express gratitude for decent actions but how much is up to you in context. I get it; I’d like to see the best in everyone and this isn’t malicious. I wouldn’t recommend throwing it around social media showering it with praise though. Only in such a system are we made to feel we should – and indeed prolific people do – tell Bezos that we are so grateful he’s not destroying the planet quite as much.

Most people in the know of these things seem to have reached a consensus that the money would be best spent on political activism. We already have a lot of the technology we need; there’s a lot of energy there. What we don’t have in many places – and very much so in America – is the political will to do anything about it. Billionaires throw their weight at government all the time; whilst we don’t have better rules and practises in place to limit this, let’s then use it for all we’ve got.

This is a lesson in marketing and spin. Branson probably does it better than anyone. The rest are learning quickly. We can do better.

In the meantime there are incredible people who deserve posts, articles, raving about in public, raising in panel discussions and mentions time and time again. We can start with Sylvia Earle, the intrepid founder, world record breaker and diver at Mission Blue who has steadfastly done the hard work her entire life. We can raise up Vandana Shiva and her incredible work, analysis and writings. Let’s land an even bigger voice to Jane Goodall and her mission. Wangari Maathai the environmentalist and activist in Kenya who founded the Green Belt Movement which is still going today. We’re also huge fans of Marie Tharp and the utterly thankless work she did mapping the world’s oceans accurately from a basement. Instead of another Bezos article, take an action to discover someone new who is doing the work without the glory – and not destroying the planet the rest of the time.

To Bezos, other billionaires, company founders of all sizes and us as individuals: Work on the most important impact you can have that’s accessible for you (multi-billionaires – that’s everything). If you don’t do that, the rest is just marketing.

Lastly, a gentle reminder that we’re not saving the Earth. We’re taking a lot of species down with us but the Earth will eventually be fine. We might not be. We’re protecting us from ourselves.

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Developed by Lis Dingjan

Lis is the founder of Nowhere & Everywhere. With a background in law, international development & service design, she is a passionate advocate of human rights, climate justice, eating from the ground, exploring deeper, giving back a little more than you take and designing better systems. Lis spends a significant portion of time in the field in rural Cambodia.

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