If this keeps going, Amazon AMZN .com Inc. will take over the world.
On Tuesday, the e-commerce and Internet-colossus reported record sales in 2020 of $386.1 billion as well as record profits. The company’s 8,000-word press release included scads of information, including the news that Jeff Bezos is leaving his job as CEO, its plans for satellite-based broadband, and guidance for the first quarter of 2021, during which revenue is expected to grow by another 30 to 40 percent.
But the Seattle-based conglomerate continues to keep a terawatt-size secret: It will not say how much energy it uses.
All of the other big technology companies that dominate our digital lives — Alphabet, Apple AAPL , Facebook, and Microsoft MSFT – publish annual reports which detail their carbon footprints, electricity use, and overall energy consumption. (For more on that, see my recent Forbes piece.) But Amazon, the Goliath of Big Tech, the company controlled by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, won’t reveal how much energy it uses.
In an era in which ESG (environmental, social, and governance) performance is driving corporate reporting and decision making, Amazon is refusing to publish basic data about its massive operation. In an email, spokesman Luis Davila told me the company doesn’t publish its energy-use data because Amazon “is different from other big technology companies; we are more complicated in terms of our physical infrastructure and delivery network that others do not have.” He went on to say the company is “on a path” to “powering our operations with renewable energy by 2025” and that it has pledged to “be net-zero carbon by 2040.”
Why does Amazon’s secrecy about its energy use matter? There are three reasons: accountability, transparency, and Bezos’ funding of big environmental groups.
Amazon frequently touts its environmental focus. Its sustainability report is 123 pages long. It plans to buy thousands of electric delivery vehicles and is making big investments in renewables. In December it said it was buying the output from some 6.5 gigawatts of renewable generation capacity, a move that Bezos said will make Amazon “the biggest corporate buyer of renewable energy ever.”
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That may be true. But for years, Amazon has been coy about its energy use and emissions. In 2019, amid rising pressure from its employees, the company finally revealed its carbon-dioxide emissions, which totaled about 44.4 million tons in 2018. Last June, the company reported that its emissions jumped by 15 percent over the prior year to about 51.1 million tons. That means Amazon’s emissions are nearly as high as those of oil giant Chevron, which emitted 60 million tons of CO2 in 2019.
Amazon’s uptick in emissions shouldn’t be surprising. As it handles more goods and services, the company has to use more energy in its data centers, warehouses, delivery trucks, and more than 80 cargo jets. But the first E in ESG stands for environment and energy use is perhaps the single most important metric in that category. In short, when it comes to energy and emissions, Amazon is saying “trust us” and it’s doing so when the other technology giants are publishing detailed reports on those issues. That’s not accountability.
Second, Amazon is different from the other tech giants. Amazon, and its massive subsidiary, Amazon Web Services, are the biggest, most dominant companies of the modern era. Amazon’s share of the domestic e-commerce market is about 50 percent. AWS owns about half of the world’s public-cloud infrastructure business, and it is growing by about 30 percent per year. In 2020, AWS revenue totaled $45.4 billion.
AWS is akin to a common carrier, like a railroad, or airline. It powers the online operations for some of the world’s highest-profile brands including the NFL and Netflix NFLX . It also provides services to the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. AWS also recently threw Parler, the conservative social media platform, off its servers. Given its enormous power in the markets it serves, as well as its influence over the Internet, and its staggering market value (about $1.7 trillion), Amazon should be transparent about its operations.
Finally, Jeff Bezos has become the single largest donor to climate-related causes. Last year, he announced that the Bezos Earth Fund would spend $10 billion supporting scientists, activists, and others because, he said, “climate change is the biggest threat to our planet.” In November, his fund announced $791 million in grants, including $100 million each to some of America’s biggest environmental groups, including Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute.
Those groups routinely scrutinize the emissions and environmental practices of America’s biggest energy producers. If big environmental groups are going to accept huge sums from Bezos, they should demand that their benefactor reveal his company’s energy use. If they don’t, they are indulging a double standard on corporate reporting.
More than a century ago, John D. Rockefeller built an empire by controlling huge swaths of the oil sector. Bezos is the 21st century Rockefeller. He is giving hundreds of millions of dollars to groups pushing for action on climate change. And yet, his business refuses to disclose information that can help the public understand how well Amazon is meeting (or failing) its ambitious climate goals.
At the very moment when activists and pundits of all stripes are demanding more accountability from government, academia, and Big Tech on issues ranging from diversity and inclusion to privacy and climate change, Amazon should be leading, not lagging, in accountability and transparency.
The company’s refusal to release its energy-use data begs an obvious question: what is Amazon hiding?