BUSINESS
09/02/2015 02:45 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2015

Amazon's Environmental Record May Be As Bad As Its Work Culture

Despite some progress, Amazon won't release emissions data.

Amazon's quasi-dystopian workplace culture is far from its only moral failure in a corporate world that increasingly expects big companies to do the right thing.

Its environmental record is badly smudged. 

Unlike some of its biggest rivals, the e-commerce giant refuses to release information about energy consumption at its data centers. Only last November did it start using renewable energy to power some of these electricity-guzzling facilities. In addition, the company offers to recycle customers' old devices, but the program is far from comprehensive.

"The biggest hurdle to Amazon becoming an environmental leader is that the company has refused to embrace some basic transparency," David Pomerantz, a senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, told The Huffington Post by phone. "It's very difficult for its customers to hold it accountable."

Amazon's cloud-computing service, which hosts some of the biggest sites on the web, earns about $6 billion annually. Earlier this year, major clients including Yahoo, Netflix and HuffPost demanded access to their electricity usage data, to no avail.

"Unfortunately we do not release this information to our customers," Amazon told HuffPost in May, after an engineer for the site requested such statistics. 

An Amazon spokeswoman, reached for comment on Wednesday, pointed HuffPost to a website outlining the cloud-computing unit's sustainability goals.

"It's hard to know what is the right amount of disclosure for that kind of information," Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at Stanford University, said of the energy usage at data centers. "But I don't think it's a proprietary issue at all to say we're using this percentage of renewable power." 

Other tech giants, by contrast, have offered more transparent reports on their data centers' energy consumption. Apple includes its facilities in its annual environmental responsibility report. Google maintains a page dedicated to the energy efficiency of its data centers. Facebook has posted video tours of one of its data centers, touting its energy efficiency since as far back as 2011.

To boot, those three companies have made substantial investments in green energy outside their data centers. Apple last February committed $848 million to a solar farm meant to power its new headquarters. Google has made numerous substantial investments in renewables. Facebook has set ambitious goals to use clean energy to power half its operations by 2018. 

Amazon's shoddy record on recycling old electronics is put to shame when held up next to Best Buy, the struggling brick-and-mortar retailer whose lunch Amazon has grown plump eating. Despite its recent financial woes, from which it has begun to recover, Best Buy offers free recycling of customers' electronic waste, including TVs and computers, at its own expense. 

On its website, Amazon says it recognizes "the importance of recycling electronic equipment at the end of its useful life." Yet, as The Guardian's Marc Gunther found, Amazon's own take-back program is limited to its own products, such as the Kindle eReader or failed Fire phone, and it requires customers to mail the defunct device in. At least with Best Buy there is a physical location to which customers can drive.

To its credit, Amazon announced plans last November to power three data centers with renewable energy. Since then, the company has laid plans for two wind farms -- in Indiana and North Carolina -- and a solar farm in Virginia. 

"Amazon has historically been one of the major tech companies that has been the slowest to embrace sustainability in its business practices," Pomerantz said. "Amazon really was an outlier until November last year." 

Amazon's recent green initiative hasn't stopped it from opening other facilities that may use fossil fuels. The company faced fresh criticism after the cloud-computer division announced in June plans to open a data center in Columbus, Ohio, a city that relies heavily on coal. It's unclear how Amazon plans to power that facility.

Such moves could prevent Amazon from shrinking its carbon footprint. If the company opens new locations as quickly as it converts others to renewable energy, its green commitments amount to little more than public relations plays.

"Amazon has started making some pretty significant progress," Pomerantz said. "But it still lags behind some of its biggest peers and competitors in a big way." 

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