Amazon’s a great company. But good? Nope.

amazon-logoLike millions of people, I like to shop at Amazon. But the more I learn about the company, the less I like it.

Amazon’s  performance on environmental and social issues has been truly dismal, as a I wrote in a story posted today on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how the story begins:

Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric and one of American’s most influential business leaders, likes to say that “if you want to be a great company today, you also have to be a good company.”

Another celebrated chief executive named Jeff — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO– is putting that proposition to the test.

Amazon is, in many ways, a great company. But good? Nope.

Amazon doesn’t publish a sustainability report, probably because it would have little to say. It doesn’t respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project. (More than 80% of big companies do.) It’s ranked very low by Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to mitigate climate change. Amazon’s  data centers get low marks from Greenpeace.

Nor does Amazon do well on social and political issues. Until Bezos agreed to install electricity last year, warehouse workers literally toiled in sweatshops where the temperatures could top 90 degrees. The company has fiercely fought efforts by states to collect sales taxes, using bullying tactics at times. If you believe the Seattle Times, and I do, the company gives less to charities than other Seattle companies and “cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.” For more, read the rest of the Guardian story. [click to continue…]

Is big business too powerful?

Corporate America has pretty much had its way in Washington for the past couple of years. Its CEOs and lobbyists got the Wall Street bailout. They got the auto bailout. They set the terms of the health care bill. They blunted financial regulation. They blocked climate legislation. If they were tied to the defense industry, they enjoyed a surge of military outlays. Of course they preserved the tax cuts for the rich. They did all of this, mind you, after the Democrats swept the 2006 and 2008 elections and gained control of  Congress and the White House.

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Now, with business-friendly Republicans in control of the House, the most powerful corporate lobbies—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers—have even more clout. They can, at minimum, stop just about anything they don’t like.

But they would be well advised to use their power sparingly.

I write this as a rational optimist, and as an unabashed believer in the power of business to do good—by creating jobs, generating wealth, satisfying people’s wants or needs, and enabling an unprecedented wave of economic growth during the past half century. (See China, cappuccino and cell phones, my first blogpost of 2011) But it’s hard for me to ignore the fact that the benefits of that growth are not being as broadly shared as they should be, at least here in the U.S., and that the reason for that, at least in part, is business’s outsized power in Washington.

The growth of inequality is especially troubling in the aftermath of the great recession. Wall Street is booming again, the stock indexes are up, corporate profits are growing…while the middle class and especially the poor—43.6 million of them, one in seven Americans—are being left behind. [click to continue…]

Coal’s unknown (and unknowable) future

One reason why the energy business is so fascinating is that smart, thoughtful and well-meaning people can look at the same facts and come to dramatically different conclusions.

Two examples just came across my desk: the cover story in the new issue of The Atlantic and a report out today from DB Climate Change Advisors, both with a focus on coal.

In The Atlantic, James Fallows–one of my all-time favorite journalists, who’s worth reading on a wide range of topics–argues that clean coal offers the best hope of dealing with the threat of climate change:

To environmentalists, “clean coal” is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal—dirty, sooty, toxic coal—in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible.

He reports in detail on China’s efforts to “decarbonize” coal by investing in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Duke Energy is engaged in a joint venture with a big Chinese energy firm, Huaneng, to research clean coal.

Essentially, Fallows argues that we need an “all-of-the-above” approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–one that encompasses renewable energy, nuclear power, efficiency and especially coal, which is abundant in the U.S. and China. Fallows quotes Duke’s chief technology officer, David Mohler:

“Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t work that way.”

Fallows goes on to say:

Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time.

But can we forecast the energy future using “basic math”? Perhaps. As Fallows notes, technological process in the energy arena has been painfully slow, not just in recent years, but for decades. The energy business is not like infotech or telecom; it’s slow to change and hugely capital intensive, as Silicon Valley venture capitalists are learning, to their dismay. “Energy production is essentially what it was in the time of James Watt,” Fallows writes, citing nuclear power as the most important exception. [click to continue…]