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The Importance of Amazon Abandoning Plastic Shipping Air Pillows

Last week,, the giant company synonymous with e-commerce, decided to drop their use of plastic air pillows in shipping. This is one of many examples of small, day-to-day decisions that provide evidence of a culture shift inside corporate decision-making. These little pieces of plastic help protect whatever Amazon is shipping, but they are an example of non-biodegradable materials that are not essential to shipping and are massively polluting our land and water. There are many causes of Amazon’s decision to abandon plastic air pillows. The New York Times report focused on pressure from environmentalists. According to the Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi:

“…under pressure from environmentalists to cut down on its use of plastic packaging, the world’s largest online retailer is close to replacing all of its puffy plastic pillows with recycled paper filler. Amazon says the move will avoid the use of almost 15 billion air pillows a year in North America. It is the Seattle-based retail giant’s “largest plastic packaging reduction effort” to date, the retail giant said in a news release on Thursday. It’s just one way companies are responding to an outcry from people and environmental groups over retailers’ use of plastic packaging, particularly as online shopping continues to surge.”

It makes a more dramatic news story to attribute the change to political pressure from environmentalists, but that perspective obscures an even more important source of change. The people who work at Amazon care about the planet. Moreover, they are motivated to try to find ways of serving customers with the least possible environmental impact. According to the Amazon press release announcing the change:

“Teams across Amazon are working every day to further our sustainability initiatives in our operations and provide customers with a more sustainable shopping experience, from improving our packaging to electrifying our delivery fleet and investing in renewable and carbon-free energy. We look forward to continuing to share our progress, and you can read our Report to learn more.”

The Amazon press release describes the scale of change underway and the staff enthusiasm for developing a recycled paper alternative that turned out to be better than plastic at protecting the product being shipped. But the more dramatic news story is the political “pressure” that the interest group Oceana (“David with the slingshot”) exerted on the big bad corporate giant Amazon (“Goliath”). When I saw the Times headline, I looked forward to reading the interviews with Amazon management and staff about what motivated them to change the packing materials. But alas, all I saw was reference to the same Amazon press release I had already read. The motivation for the change, according to the Times, was relentless political pressure. There was no evidence presented that interest group pressure resulted in the change, it was simply assumed. The story then went on to report on efforts to obtain state legislation limiting plastics and toxics in packaging. The piece failed to mention that states are incapable of regulating interstate commerce, which is precisely what Amazon engages in. I assume these groups focus their lobbying on states since they know they will get nowhere with our dysfunctional federal congress, but why would anyone think that state-level rules are the best way to influence a global corporation like Amazon? Why did the New York Times report fail to discuss this issue?

I am certain that environmental groups have done important work in raising awareness of the plastic packaging issue, but the automatic assumption seems to be that they are failing to influence hearts and minds and must resort to political pressure. There is significant evidence that grassroots awareness of environmental issues is growing and influencing consumers and producers of goods and services. It is not political pressure or state regulation that is motivating this change but a deep and widespread and largely nonideological understanding that we need to prevent pollution wherever we can. Groups like Oceana have helped build that awareness, and that is a critical role that they play and need to continue. But we need to acknowledge the shifting values of workers and management that are at the heart of this transformation. This is particularly true of young people. I know that conflict and drama attract clicks and eyeballs, but why can’t we pay a little attention to cooperation and changing values?

For the past several years, students in my graduate Sustainability Management course at Columbia have been writing case studies of efforts to integrate sustainability management into routine organizational decision-making. Some of these case studies can be found on our master’s program website. While there are certainly examples of failed efforts, for the most part, we see organizations acting with seriousness of purpose to innovate and reduce their environmental impact. Nearly all human activity in the modern world has a negative impact on environmental quality. Our goal is not to eliminate that impact but to minimize it. Of course, the Times was not alone in its effort to ignore Amazon’s motivation for making this change. I could find no other media outlet that interviewed anyone from Amazon to learn why the change was taking place.

In my view, that motivation is the heart of the story and the reason the change is important. Our goal is to move from a linear economy of production-to-consumption-to-waste to a true circular economy, where nothing is wasted and the additional resources we use are renewable and based on photosynthesis and other uses of solar energy. This economy does not require less consumption, but changes in consumption. It requires thousands of decisions like the one just taken by Amazon to drop these plastic air bubbles. It requires creative decision-making, innovation, and careful analysis. In Amazon’s case, the new, biodegradable paper packing material protects products as well as the plastic bubbles did. Amazon hired an engineering contractor to conduct an analysis comparing paper to plastic packing. This type of creative analysis is a result of staff and management who care about protecting the environment but also have a job to do that requires that products get to their customers in one piece.

Stories about political pressure being the cause of changed corporate behavior feed directly into the popular narrative about America’s polarized politics. In my view, it’s not always about us vs. them, it’s sometimes about “we.” The United States clearly has a problem with the growing gap between rich and poor and a declining middle class. We also see a growing cultural gap between people living in red and blue states. Nevertheless, there are a number of values we all hold in common. We need to acknowledge and build on those common values. Oceana, which is a wonderful organization dedicated to protecting our oceans fed into a us vs. them narrative with their own website announcement of Amazon’s new practice. According to Oceana’s site:

“Today, Amazon announced that it has replaced 95% of the plastic air pillows from delivery packaging in North America with 100% recycled paper filler — a move that is, according to the company, expected to “avoid nearly 15 billion plastic air pillows annually.” The decision is part of Amazon’s “multi-year effort to remove plastic delivery packaging from North America fulfillment centers.” This announcement follows years of campaigning by Oceana and its allies for the company to reduce its use of plastic packaging including releasing reports on Amazon’s plastic packaging waste footprint, campaigning outside the company’s headquarters, meeting with company representatives, and advocating for shareholder resolutions.” (Emphasis added.)

Yes, Amazon’s move followed years of advocacy by “Oceana and its allies,” that is the timeline, but we still have no information on the internal dynamics that led to Amazon’s operational change. We don’t know cause and effect and anyone who studies organizational dynamics understands that organizational change is nearly always multidimensional. I am confident that within Amazon there are change agents that pushed long and hard for this change. Just as they are pushing for decarbonization and electrification of delivery vehicles. We need to acknowledge those common values and build on them. When I think about today’s extreme political polarization, I sometimes think about the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, our demonization of the Soviet Union, and John F. Kennedy’s 1963 commencement speech at American University, which stated our common values as well as anyone ever has. At that critical juncture in world history, Kennedy observed:

“…let us not be blind to our differences-but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal. (Emphasis added.) 

We inhabit this small and fragile planet, all breathe the same air, and we all know it. We all cherish our children’s future and want to make sure that the earth they inherit will continue to support human and other forms of life. Despite political posturing and even willful ignorance, over the last half-century the American public has consistently supported environmental protection. Young people working in our institutions insist on environmental sustainability and they have stimulated important changes in corporate culture here and all over the world. That is an important and deep-rooted change and Amazon’s decision is a small example of that change.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Columbia School of Professional Studies or Columbia University.

About the Program

The Columbia University M.S. in Sustainability Management program offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Climate School provides students cutting-edge policy and management tools they can use to help public and private organizations and governments address environmental impacts and risks, pollution control, and remediation to achieve sustainability. The program is customized for working professionals and is offered as both a full- and part-time course of study.