Keeping Amazon Honest

Letting stakeholders monitor a firm’s progress is a critical step, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman, but it’s not easy.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Amazon is the world’s first successful online marketplace, the second company to cross the $1 trillion valuation threshold, and, as of September 19th, the first signatory of the Climate Pledge -- a commitment to be net zero carbon by 2040, 10 years ahead of what was called for in the UN’s Paris Climate Accord.

Amazon’s new focus on climate was inspired (at least in part) by their purpose-powered employees. The Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group appeared at the annual shareholder’s meeting last October with a plan for how Amazon might support innovations that would combat climate change. More than 7,600 employees signed a letter to Amazon, asking them to indicate how they planned to do something impactful around the environmental crisis.

Amazon, of course, joins a host of other companies whose top management has been pushed from below to embrace an organizational mission with meaning and teeth. Oatly, the brash Swedish oat milk company, for example, touts on its cartons a website detailing where their product comes from.

Amazon’s strategy under its new Climate Pledge includes committing to using 100% renewable energy company wide within the next ten years; ordering 100,000 electric-powered delivery trucks from the automaker Rivian; and a $100 million contribution to The Nature Conservancy to restore forests and other wildlands.

Not bad, so far as it goes.

While the employees’ group responded on Twitter saying Amazon’s pledge was “a huge win” they also said, “we know it’s not enough.”

What’s enough? Let me make a modest proposal for true radical transparency. Start with “life cycle assessment” or LCA, a method for calculating precise metrics for the environmental impacts of any product or service, with breakdowns at every step of their life cycle. Make this information readily available and show where you are lessening your impacts.

LCA can, for example, look at a single product from the material extraction phase through the industrial processes of manufacture, packaging, transporting, time in store, even what happens during its use, and then disposal. This converts a given product and its multiple impacts—from carbon footprints and chemicals of concern to workers’ exposure to toxins and the like—into forces that can count in sales.

Then customers would know the true impact of their choices. Such radical transparency could make a company a leader in its sector among today’s younger generations – and tomorrow’s customer base.

Companies that go public with a lofty purpose “have to be ready to be examined,” says Kate Shattuck, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Impact Investing practice, “Don’t do it unless you’re ready.”

Amazon, for example, cut healthcare for their part-time employees the week before they touted their environmental commitments. Even with the launch of their new sustainability site, “Are you ready?” is a reasonable question.

Experts agree that when it comes to having the resources, infrastructure, and talent to carry out their big purpose-powered plans, few organizations are ready. In order for all of us to know the life cycle assessment of a major business, it will take government, non-profits, scientists, researchers, activists, and companies across industries to come together and collaborate. As Shattuck says, we need “the financial acumen of Warren Buffett, the heart of Mother Teresa, and the agility of MacGyver.”

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