Business sustainability is a hot issue for huge, global businesses. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut, to name only a few, regularly generate exciting media coverage of their sustainability programs.
What is so important about sustainability and why is it trending so powerfully in the business community? In this article, we explore the basic principles of business sustainability and some reasons why popular businesses invest in this fast-growing trend. We also take a critical look at Amazon’s current sustainability initiatives and challenges.
Three Basic Principles of Business Sustainability
Corporate, or business sustainability is loosely defined as investing in social good as well as financial profit, seeking successful longevity by meeting present needs without negatively impacting the needs of future generations. As outlined in an Investopedia article, business sustainability depends on three basic principles, or ‘pillars’:
- People Pillar – Sustainable business success requires approval and support from employees, shareholders, and the diverse communities in which it operates
- Planet Pillar – Business sustainability relies on reducing waste, water usage, carbon emissions, etc., because negatively affecting the planet produces negative economic and social impacts
- Prosperity Pillar – A sustainable business is profitable, but not at the expense of negative environmental and/or social impacts
The Triple Bottom Line
The term ‘business sustainability’ evolved from concepts of sustainable development and the triple bottom line. In business, ‘the bottom line’ refers to net financial profit. However, proposing that businesses’ economic goals are inseparable from environmental and social impacts, the ‘triple bottom line’ focuses on business strategies that positively impact all three areas of concern.
Understanding the triple bottom line offers a compelling reason why companies invest in sustainability. Publicly sharing business sustainability goals and achievements through press releases and social media positively impacts a company’s reputation and increases social approval. Whether a business is a local mom and pop operation, or a large, globally recognized corporation, media coverage of sustainability goals offers an edge against competitors. This edge may be difficult to precisely quantify, but, by standing on all three pillars of business sustainability, clearly improves the company’s triple bottom line.
Amazon’s Exciting New Climate Pledge Fund
With the September 2019 founding of its Climate Pledge, Amazon publicly committed to “building a sustainable business for our customers and the planet” by becoming “net zero carbon across our business by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.” Sharing a timely prophecy, Amazon quotes Christiana Figueres:
“Bold steps by big companies will make a huge difference in the development of new technologies and industries to support a low carbon economy.”
— Christiana Figueres former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change
In June 2020, Amazon unveiled its exciting new Climate Pledge Fund, supporting “the development of sustainable and decarbonizing technologies and services that will enable Amazon and other companies to meet the goals set by The Climate Pledge.” Initially investing $2 billion in funding, Amazon seems to fulfill Figueres’ prophecy, announcing it will “invest in visionary companies whose products and solutions will facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy.”
Seeking sustainable technologies for food, manufacturing, transportation, and other industries, Amazon is offering its investment funds to Climate Pledge Signatories. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos states in a GeekWire article, “Companies from around the world of all sizes and stages will be considered, from pre-product startups to well-established enterprises. Each prospective investment will be judged on its potential to accelerate the path to zero carbon and help protect the planet for future generations.”
Amazon’s Missing Pillar
Working to “protect the planet for future generations,” Amazon’s sustainability goals are certainly impressive. But unfair labor practices and apparent retaliatory firings of outspoken employees have initiated angry pushback from Amazon employees, elected officials, and the wider public. Bezos must recognize that Amazon’s sustainability depends on the social justice pillar equally with environmental responsibility and financial profit. Audaciously neglecting employee rights to safe, fair labor practices, firing employees who complain publicly, and ignoring corrective shareholder proposals ultimately spell disaster.
In a Washington Post article exposing Amazon’s controversial firings, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sums up Bezos’ challenge. “That is obscene,” says Sanders. “Maybe — just maybe — the wealthiest man in the world can afford to provide a safe and dignified existence to all of his workers and end Amazon’s involvement in fossil fuel extraction, instead of just firing employees who are demanding justice and an end to the hypocrisy.”
What do you think? Does this determine if you support or not support Amazon?