Amazon employee on walkout for climate change: I was feeling 'hopeless,' 'ashamed' of my role there

Rebecca Sheppard, 28, is an Amazon employee in Seattle who is one of the organizers of the Sept. 20 Global Climate Strike walk out at the Seattle headquarters.
Photo courtesy Rebecca Sheppard

For Rebecca Sheppard, a 28-year-old Amazon employee in Seattle, walking out of work on Sept. 20 to call for Amazon to reduce its impact on the climate is a personal, moral decision.

"I grew up acutely aware of the climate crisis, because I watched the hurricanes in my hometown get worse," Sheppard, who grew up in the coastal town Wilmington, North Carolina, told The Guardian in an interview published Tuesday.

Sheppard, who has been with Amazon for three years, currently works in the Seattle headquarters as a senior product manager for Amazon Air, the company's fleet of delivery aircraft, which launched in 2016.

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"When I first started, I worked on optimization. If you utilize each aircraft fully, you don't need to fly as many," Sheppard said. "But eventually I became frustrated, because no matter how efficiently you're using the aircraft, the aircraft itself remains the same. It's still burning fossil fuels. Planes today are still unsustainable even if you're trying to use them as efficiently as possible. And sustainability is a very personal issue for me."

She started to feel demoralized about her work.

"Last year, I was feeling hopeless, unmotivated and frankly ashamed of the role I was playing at Amazon Air enabling carbon emissions," Sheppard said. "I have a beautiful three-year-old nephew, and I was afraid of what his world was going to look like in 50 years, given how much worse it had gotten in my 28 years." 

So Sheppard joined a group of Amazon workers internally lobbying for their employer to take action to reduce its negative impact on the environment and climate change. The group became known as the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) and is participating in the Global Climate Strike — a series of walkouts to bring attention to climate change organized by and for young people — on Sept. 20.

So far, over 1,000 Amazon employees have committed to joining the walkout. That represents a relatively small percentage of the company's 653,300 full-time and part-time headcount, as of its second-quarter investor relations financial release published in July.

The Amazon employees who are walking out have three demands: They want Amazon to commit to producing zero carbon emissions by 2030 by rolling out electric vehicle use, to eliminate Amazon Web Services contracts for fossil-fuel companies and to stop funding climate-denying lobbyists and politicians.

The walk-out will be the first time employees walk out of Amazon's corporate offices in Seattle, the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice said. "Many of us are taking vacation days to walk out," a spokesperson for the group told CNBC Make It.

In April, shareholders and employees requested change on a number of issues from climate change to equal pay, and those resolutions were rejected.

In response to the walkout, Amazon said it is working on its climate actions.

"Playing a significant role in helping to reduce the sources of human-induced climate change is an important commitment for Amazon," the spokesperson told CNBC Make It. "We have dedicated sustainability teams who have been working for years on initiatives to reduce our environmental impact."

In particular, Amazon pointed to its program called Shipment Zero, a "vision" to eventually make all Amazon shipments net zero carbon and half of shipments net zero carbon by 2030. Amazon also pointed to its sustainable packaging programs which have reduced packaging materials and said it would be publicly releasing a report detailing its company carbon footprint, goals and programs later in 2019.

"This follows an extensive project over the past few years to develop an advanced scientific model to carefully map our carbon footprint to provide our business teams with detailed information helping them identify ways to reduce carbon use in their businesses," the spokesperson said.

But Sheppard and the other 1,000 employees walking out aren't waiting.

"I remember learning about global warming in school. I remember thinking that all these problems would be fixed by the time I graduated from college because we have leaders," but it's not fixed, Sheppard said. "Then I changed how I thought about who leaders are. ... Those of us who are walking out of our offices on 20 September, we are leaders."

"A lot of people don't realize the strength they can wield in their workplace. I certainly didn't," Sheppard said. "Amazon is not Jeff Bezos alone. Amazon is Amazon because of the workers who work for it. It needs all of us to function, from the people in the offices writing software to the people in the warehouses packing boxes. When you realize that, you realize the power is not at the top. It's at the bottom, collectively, with all of the people working together to keep the company running."

Amazon employees "are in a unique position as a significant stakeholder in the fastest-growing global consumer and logistics company," Ethan Powell, the CEO and founder of impact-investing nonprofit Impact Shares, told CNBC Make It. "Amazon stands to control a majority of consumption activity moving forward, as they already control 5% of all retail spend and half of the online market."

And Amazon's climate impact could get even more significant. "As they push quick, convenient deliveries they also stand to be the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions as they execute on their growth initiatives," Powell said.

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At the very least, "the climate action mobilization by Amazon employees already has elevated public attention to the issue" Sue Reid, the vice president of climate and energy at sustainability nonprofit Ceres, told CNBC Make It.

Amazon isn't the only company to see its employees plan a high profile walkout. Hundreds of Google employees in more than 20 offices around the world walked out in November to protest the company's handling of sexual misconduct, and Wayfair employees walked out in June to protest its sale of children's beds to migrant detention camps on the U.S.-Mexico border.

"It's part of a broader trend of customers, employees and public officials asking tougher questions about the role of corporations in society," Reid told CNBC Make It.

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