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Amazon Accused of ‘Greenwashing on a Grotesque Scale’

Amazon launched Amazon Aware in March to help customers shop for more sustainable apparel, home and beauty essentials. Now the same range is being accused of “greenwashing on a grotesque scale” after it emerged that the so-called “thoughtfully designed” items are being swaddled in a surfeit of plastic and paper packaging.

The revelation comes courtesy of the Telegraph, which ordered 20 of the line’s 103 products, which have organic, recycled or bio-based origins and are available in Canada, Europe and the United States. All but the recycled toilet paper hailed from far-flung countries such as Pakistan and Vietnam, requiring copious amounts of fuel to ship. And the vast majority came encased in the same polluting plastic that Amazon says it’s trying to nip in the bud.

“Every item but two arrived wrapped in single-use plastic, despite several of the products being delivered in the same box,” the outlet wrote last week. “The plastic can only be recycled at large supermarkets. The products were delivered in large boxes filled with excess brown paper.”

Amazon claims that all Amazon Aware products boast third-party certifications featured in its Climate Pledge Friendly program, including the Organic Content Standard 100, the Global Recycle Standard and the Higg Index Materials Seal. (The last is based on the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, which has itself come under fire for promoting greenwashing.) Also in the mix: Compact by Design, an in-house standard that highlights products that require less packaging and are therefore more efficient to ship.

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“We approached Amazon Aware with two goals in mind, to give millions of customers access to everyday essentials across apparel, home, beauty and more…and to build knowledge, materials and other innovations that improve the products sold in our stores,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

While some of the products are packaged in plastic bags, Amazon said they’re made of 80 percent post-consumer recycled material designed to shield their contents from damage. (It’s also working to transition packaging to materials that are compatible with local paper and plastic recycling streams.) To tamp down emissions, everything in the line is verified carbon neutral using what the e-tail giant terms “high-quality” offset credits.

But Green Party peer Baroness Jenny Jones told the Telegraph that carbon credits are akin to “medieval indulgences that rich people paid to the church to bribe their way into heaven.” Offsetting, she said, “often doesn’t work.”

Denouncing Amazon for “greenwashing on a grotesque scale,” Jones added that “putting a green gloss on individually plastic-wrapped items from half a world away is not going to cut it.”

Amazon should be thinking about the entire product lifecycle, including packaging and transport, when making its sustainability claims, said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, a corporate watchdog that has questioned the “false promise” of certifications in the fashion industry as a “license to greenwash.”

“It’s clear with Amazon Aware that they’re falling short on these fronts, shipping [products] from thousands of miles away [while] packaged in unnecessary single-use plastic,” he told Sourcing Journal. “Criteria for inclusion in the range seems to be primarily third-party certification, yet as we have found in our research, third-party certification is no guarantee for sustainability and can often act as a smokescreen, so rely[ing] on this as the main criteria is shaky at best.”

Still, Amazon Aware isn’t the only way Amazon is greenwashing, Harding-Rolls said. Its Climate Pledge Friendly label, too, features an “arbitrary selection” of items, with many containing large amounts of plastic. There are even a number of products containing meat, which account for the bulk of greenhouse gases from food production.

All of this “perpetuates the myth that consuming more ‘better’ products is a climate solution,” Harding-Rolls said. “Much of the pledge relies on offsetting Amazon’s emissions, which cannot be relied upon as a net-zero strategy over absolute reductions in emissions. Amazon’s rampant, high-growth business model cannot be neutralised by tokenistic offsetting and greenwashed sustainability collections.”

Oceana, which has been dueling with Amazon over its plastic footprint, would agree with that assessment. Last month, the environmental nonprofit blasted the Everything Store for cosseting its goods in 709 million pounds of plastic mailers, plastic cling film and plastic bubble wrap in 2021, an 18 percent increase from the year before. A significant amount—up to 26 million pounds, it estimated—will end up in the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans, wreaking havoc on marine life.

“The science is clear, the type of plastic used by Amazon for its packaging is a threat to the oceans,” said Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives. “Customers and shareholders are calling for the company to act. It’s time for Amazon to, as it has on climate, step up and commit to a global reduction in its use of plastic packaging.”

In response, the retail titan said it reduced the average plastic packaging weight per shipment by more than 7 percent, resulting in 97,222 metric tons—roughly 214 million pounds—of single-use plastic across its global operations, a fraction of what Oceana calculated. Littlejohn in return said that Amazon’s figure only accounts for plastic packaging used for orders dispatched through owned and operated fulfillment centers, leaving out shipments by third-party sellers.

Amazon, which plans to lay off 18,000 workers, is also facing opposition on the climate front after two of its shareholders filed a resolution urging it to measure and disclose the total amount of greenhouse-gas emissions generated by its entire value chain, including those from the merchandise it sells from third-party vendors.

The Whole Foods owner may have committed to hitting net zero by 2040, said Amalgamated Bank and Green Century Capital Management, but it fails to disclose emissions for the products it sells beyond those it directly fulfills, which make up a mere 1 percent of sales. Still, even the absolute emissions for those have swelled roughly 40 percent since 2019 when they should be falling to stay within the Paris Agreement trajectory, they added.

“Amazon has failed to take responsibility for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions it enables as the world’s largest online retailer,” said Daniel Stewart, energy and climate program manager at As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy nonprofit that is representing Amalgamated Bank. “As climate impacts accelerate, it is critical that Amazon work to ensure that the products it sells and the suppliers it works with are transitioning to net zero.”

Amazon told Sourcing Journal that it has no comment on the resolution itself, and that any response will become available as part of standard shareholder processes governed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.