While Jeff Bezos scored some wins at his last shareholder meeting before he steps down as Amazon's chief executive, he acknowledged the company has plenty of work to do to address issues related to the climate and workplace safety, and emphasized it has more changes ahead.
“In my 2002 shareholder letter, I addressed that question [of innovation] head-on,” said Bezos, who founded the company in 1994. “I said I thought there was more innovation ahead of us than behind us. There's no doubt in my mind that is still true.”
It was a singular moment for a company that he built from a fledgling online used-book sales company operating out of his garage in the suburbs of Seattle to the nation’s second largest employer. On Wednesday, shareholders voted down 10 proposals ranging from how the company handles its climate issues to race and gender disparities within the workforce. But Bezos acknowledged that these problems come with running a large company.
“We recognize that with success comes scrutiny and we welcome it,” he told investors. “Our goals are in line with goals of competition, low prices, wide selection, convenience, and ever-improving innovation and risk-taking. We welcome the scrutiny.”
It has clearly been a record year for Amazon. While Walmart is still larger than Amazon in overall revenue, Amazon’s meteoric sales during the pandemic has only boosted its dominance in e-commerce. Amazon’s share of U.S. ecommerce sales is expected to increase from about 39.8 percent in 2020 to 40.4 percent in 2021, according to eMarketer.
Bezos told shareholders Wednesday that he credits the company’s “startup” work model for its success.
“Our whole history as a company is about taking risks,” he said. “We will continue to take big risks, it's a huge part of what has made Amazon successful.”
The shareholder meeting followed a landmark day for the company after it announced its acquisition of MGM Studios for $8.5 billion, which would bolster its roster of Amazon Prime streaming content, including James Bond and "Rocky" franchises. The studio acquisition is Amazon’s second-largest buy after the $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market in 2017.
“MGM has a vast deep catalog of much beloved intellectual property,” Bezos said Wednesday. “And with the talented people at MGM and Amazon studios, we can reimagine and develop that IP for the 21st century. It's going to be a lot of fun work and people who love stories are going to be the big beneficiaries.”
As Bezos steps into a full-time role as the board chair, he leaves a company that has grown into the nation’s second largest employer, with more than 1 million workers. As the company has aimed for speed to meet consumer demands, Amazon workers have started to organize to improve their working conditions.
Over the last year, workers have organized solidarity campaigns, strikes, protests and walkouts at warehouses across the United States, including in Chicago, New York City, Minneapolis, Iowa City, Iowa, Sacramento and the Inland Empire of California, Salem, Oregon, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Amazon has responded with intense anti-union campaigns, including in Bessemer, Alabama, where workers ultimately voted against forming a union in April.
Elsewhere, Amazon has faced allegations of retaliation against organizers, resulting in dozens of charges against the company filed to the National Labor Relations Board. Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders that according to news reports, “you might think we have no care for employees.”
“In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots,” he said, adding that it is not accurate. Roughly 94 percent of employees would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work, he said.
But shareholders voted down a proposal Wednesday to place an hourly worker on the board to directly assess and address the risks they face. It also failed to pass proposals for a racial equity audit of its policies, practices, products and services to analyze how its treatment of workers and technologies, such as Ring and Amazon Rekognition, disproportionately harm or discriminate against people of color.
Bezos told shareholders that the company has reduced workplace stress injuries by 32 percent between 2019 and 2020 and the company’s $15 minimum wage has led to an overall lift in pay across employers.
Amazon’s dominance has also prompted policymakers and legal scholars to voice concerns and take action over its impact on consumers and competition. This week, Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine accused the company of antitrust violations claiming its “fair price policy” across its third-party seller network unfairly raised prices for consumers during the early months of the pandemic, and suppressed innovation.
But Jack Evans, an Amazon spokesperson, said in an email that “The D.C. attorney general has it exactly backwards – sellers set their own prices for the products they offer in our store.” He added that “Amazon takes pride in the fact that we offer low prices across the broadest selection, and like any store we reserve the right not to highlight offers to customers that are not priced competitively.”
The lawsuit led by Racine comes nearly a year after Bezos, along with CEOs from the country’s top technology companies including Facebook, Google and Apple, testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on antitrust practices. There, Bezos told the committee he “can’t guarantee” the company has never used third-party seller data to bolster its own brand sales, a practice that would amount to anti-competitive behavior.
Still a shareholder proposal to institute a “robust board oversight” group to address risks related to anti-competitive practices failed to pass Wednesday.
Bezos also made sure to address the challenges the company has been facing with its handling of climate issues. Beginning in 2019, Amazon workers with the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice have used their shareholder positions to introduce climate-related proposals and organize internally to advocate for more robust action around climate justice.
Amazon successfully blocked a proposal from consideration this year that would have enhanced its emissions goals and address its logistics network’s environmental harms across the Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant neighborhoods where its distribution centers are based.
But Bezos said the company is making progress toward its goal of powering all of its businesses with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025 and it is continuing to sign new companies to its pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2040.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the company needed to do more. “Amazon needs to complete the basic first step of acknowledging the harm done, and then move to fix the problem at the scale of Amazon by deploying zero-emissions technologies in the communities most affected first."