You’ve probably heard: Amazon Prime Day is happening today and tomorrow (July 12 and 13). There are deals galore, and the internet is alive with timely listicles of Amazon products for every niche—including “eco-friendly” Amazon deals. But the problem is, there’s no such thing. For all its promises and posturing, Amazon is a company with massive negative environmental impacts, and Prime Day embodies some of its worst traits.
First off, there’s all that packaging and waste. Then there’s the transportation emissions ramped up by super-fast delivery. Adding insult to injury are the company’s half-measure, corporate carbon pledges, a flawed emissions self-reporting strategy, and fossil fuel partnerships. So, before you buy into the hype and add a ‘green’ products wishlist into your shopping cart, know that Amazon’s climate track record isn’t so prime.
Amazon sends out a lot of stuff. Specifically, between March 2021 and March 2022, the company sold more than $477 billion worth of stuff, a 21.7% increase from the year before. It is far and away the biggest e-commerce company, accounting for 41% of the U.S. market, according to Statista. And all that stuff means boxes stuffed into boxes. Packages full of packages. Every Amazon order includes something you didn’t order: probably a cardboard box and/or some bonus plastic.
Altogether, it’s tons (literally) of packaging that likely wouldn’t have existed if people were purchasing their items in stores instead of online. One report from the nonprofit group Oceana estimated that Amazon created about 599 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2020 alone, a 29% increase over 2019. Amazon contested those findings, and the company claimed Oceana’s estimate “overestimated our plastics usage by more than 300%,” in a statement to the Washington Post. However, the company didn’t disclose its own breakdown of its plastic usage or how numbers had changed year-to-year.
Amazon has publicly stated it is working toward more sustainable packaging goals, including using less additional packaging overall, transitioning to envelopes where possible, and making all “Amazon device packaging 100% curbside recyclable by 2023.” On paper, these are admirable goals, but the dream hasn’t quite materialized yet. The recycling system is so broken that a recyclable packaging pledge is nearly meaningless. Recycling rates are decreasing nationally—not because people aren’t trying, but largely because the infrastructure doesn’t actually exist to effectively recycle.
Plus, Amazon has historically not disclosed how much cardboard and paper packaging it is using. (We asked but have not yet received a response.) Though it says it’s aiming for “zero additional packaging,” there’s no way to assess how it’s doing on reaching that goal when the company won’t offer firm numbers.
Regardless, every single item you don’t order on Prime Day is another box or paper mailer or plastic package cushion that doesn’t have to be sent out into the world.
And packaging aside, Amazon may be contributing to mass waste in other ways. A 2021 report from the U.K.’s ITV news determined that Amazon was routinely destroying unsold warehouse stock en masse: millions of items landfilled annually from a single distribution center. Unsold goods eventually become more expensive for the company to store than Amazon would make through sales on those items, so things simply get chucked.
Ordering something with the click of a button might seem less carbon-intensive than hopping in your car and driving to a store to buy it yourself. And at least one past analysis has found that’s true (with big caveats). However, the reality is complicated, and the emissions cost of getting a purchase to your home likely varies based on individual factors like distanced traveled, mode of transport, item weight, how much you buy at once, and other variables.
What is clear, though, is that Amazon’s emphasis on super-fast delivery makes the transportation costs worse than they would be otherwise. Single and two-day shipping options mean trucks leave distribution centers with less cargo, boxes are less full, and a single customer could easily receive multiple small Amazon deliveries in a week. One 2021 study found that fast shipping increases the CO2 emissions of a transaction by 15%. It’s a “convenient” idea that feeds into our worst habits, allowing people to make increasingly bad climate decisions from the comfort of home.
Amazon has stated it’s aiming for “50% of Amazon shipments with net-zero carbon by 2030” and the company is angling toward improvements like electrified delivery fleets. But it’s unclear if the resources exist for Amazon to meet those ambitious goals, and in the mean time, the company continues to add gas-burning vehicles to the roads nationwide. Moreover, Amazon’s emphasis on speed over all else has caused its competitors to adopt the same priorities.
And all of this is just the ground shipping portion of a package’s journey to your doorstep. Amazon also relies on planes to move materials great distances, quickly. The company is even angling to expand its logistics arm into air freight, which is an odd choice, given its public emissions pledge. Shipping by air produces 22 times as much CO2 as shipping by sea and six times as much as truck freighting, according to trade publication Freight Waves.
Though cargo ships certainly aren’t great for the environment either. Maritime shipping is responsible for an estimated 10% to 15% of toxic global sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide emissions. And Amazon makes up a huge portion of ocean freight traffic.
As mentioned above, Amazon has made some big public promises about its future sustainability goals. There’s the less (and more recyclable) packaging pledges, the 50% net zero by 2030 benchmark, and—biggest of all— the company has stated it plans to be 100% carbon neutral by 2040. That all sounds admirable, but a promise isn’t a guarantee (in the same way that a shipping notification email isn’t the package in your hands). And Amazon has slacked off on previous environmental promises, like its 2014 pledge to power its new data centers with only renewable energy. Most of the new strategy is based on controversial carbon offset purchases. Then there’s the issue that Amazon’s carbon neutrality is only as real as its self-reported carbon footprint, and the company may be drastically undercounting its own emissions.
Compared with major competitors like Walmart and Target, Amazon includes only a fraction of its sales in its alleged carbon calculations, according to a February report from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The company only includes about 1% of the products it sells online (Amazon branded products) in its emissions assessments.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting:
There’s another 39% of sales that Amazon should be counting if it were using the same accounting as its peers. These are the products that Amazon buys from manufacturers and sells directly to the customer. They’re made by other companies – think Levi’s, Nintendo, Frigidaire – but their product listings say “ships from” and “sold by” Amazon.com. Target and Walmart stock these same brands. But unlike Target and Walmart, Amazon doesn’t count the emissions that go into making these products – or those that come out of them.
To be fair, lots of the emissions associated with an item happen at the production level, and Amazon has limited power over, say, Levi’s production methods. But if Amazon were tallying its emissions in the same way as Target, it might opt to directly stock items from manufacturers who are producing in a more environmentally friendly way. Such a change at the largest online retailer could trigger wide-ranging incentive shifts for manufacturers.
As is, though, Amazon could claim to be at net zero without actually getting anywhere close. And even so, the company’s self-reported carbon footprint continues to rise.
Finally, there’s one more factor that Amazon’s climate pledges aren’t particularly transparent about: the company’s direct role in boosting fossil fuel extraction. Amazon Web Services actively pursues oil industry clients, and then helps them drill more oil, faster. It’s been such a lucrative partnership so far that a major fossil fuel company like BP moved all its data over to AWS centers in 2019. Amazon claims it will be squeaky clean and carbon neutral by 2040, but the company clearly has no intentions of washing its hands of the oil industry.
On this Prime Day, for the planet’s sake, maybe think twice about that purchase. Could you buy it locally instead? Could you hold off and make multiple purchases all at once? Could you forgo fast shipping? Could you, perhaps, not buy the thing at all? After all, behind all of Amazon’s environmental calculations, decisions, disclosures, and omissions, there’s those pesky overarching issues of overconsumption and capitalism.
Prime Day exists because of Amazon’s continual push for more sales and bigger bottom lines. But incentivizing people to consume more! faster! now! can never be truly sustainable. Environmental disaster won’t be avoided by stocking up on reusable straws and solar chargers. Instead, what would help is a concerted, global effort to use, produce, and buy less.