How Amazon’s Emissions are Hurting Communities of Color
Fossil fuels are inherently dirty and harm health as well as the climate. The COVID-19 pandemic exposes compounding health vulnerabilities.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice is presenting a shareholder resolution to Amazon’s Board on May 27 about Amazon’s environmental racism. Read our statement.
Communities around the world are suffering from environmental harm. The climate crisis is rapidly destroying the world as we know it, and toxic pollution from burning fossil fuels is bringing illness to communities through contaminated water and air. It is well known that the extraction, transportation, processing, and burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change; what is less discussed is the way that fossil-fuels pollute water systems during extraction and transportation, and pollute the air when burned. The root of these forms of environmental degradation is the same: an economy that relentlessly extracts resources from the earth and ignores the resulting damage.
Globally, air pollution leads to 7 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. Fine particulate matter from sources such as diesel trucking enters the lungs and bloodstream, leading to chronic inflammation and illness, increased cancer rates, and premature death. The air pollution from heavy-duty diesel trucks is particularly harmful to developing children, stunting their lung development and causing asthma and respiratory illnesses that will impact them the rest of their lives.
Chronic exposure to diesel air pollution weakens the lungs and immune system, putting vulnerable people at more risk of dying from COVID-19. These results reflect studies of a similar coronavirus outbreak in 2003 which found that infected patients from regions with high air pollution were twice as likely to die from that SARS coronavirus than patients in low-pollution regions.
Environmental harm is inequitable
For all of us, a healthy environment is a priority for our families. Think about your own community and the place you live in. Some of us can trust that our children can step outside and breathe the air without damaging their lungs. But for many people in the US, especially people of color, every breath of air means harm to the body. Many are forced to contend daily with the transgression of polluting industries.
Access to a clean environment is widely disparate between communities, and the disparities are not random. Pollution is systematically situated in communities that have less wealth and political power to stop it. The principle that all people have equal right to a clean and safe environment is termed environmental justice. In the US, the communities most impacted are Black, Latinx, and Indigenous. The fact that pollution disproportionately harms people of color is an effect of systematic racism and is termed environmental racism.
You may be familiar with some examples of environmental racism: The water crisis in Flint, where a majority-black community has been denied the necessary resources to keep lead out of the water supply. An area in Louisiana, with a high percentage of black and poor residents, is known as “Cancer Alley” because it has the highest cancer rates in the nation from roughly 150 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities. In Texas, an Exxon oil refinery has been pumping toxic chemicals into the air of a mostly African American neighborhood for decades, despite civil rights complaints with the EPA.
Like other environmental harms, air pollution is disproportionately concentrated in communities of color. A 2014 study found that people of color are exposed to 38% more toxic air pollution, on average, than whites, and the racial gap remains even when accounting for differing income levels. Similarly, A 2019 study found that Black and Latino people experience 56 and 63 percent more air pollution (respectively) than they cause by their consumption, while white people experience about 17 percent less air pollution than they produce through consumption.
In all of these cases, communities of color are sidelined and forced to bear the environmental damage of our economy.
Amazon is complicit
Amazon’s operations are complicit in environmental racism. Amazon’s logistics network of trucks spew climate-change-causing greenhouse gases and toxic particles as they drive to and from warehouses that are concentrated near Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Public warehouse facility location data from MWPVL International indicates 80% of Amazon’s non-corporate facilities are located in zip codes that have a higher percentage of people of color than the majority of populated zip codes in their metropolitan area. This is represented by the facilities shown above the line in the graph below.
The graph shows that the majority of Amazon’s facilities are located in zip codes that have a higher percentage of POCs than the majority of zip codes in their metropolitan area. This indicates that when Amazon builds its logistics infrastructure in a metropolitan area, it’s likely to put them in neighborhoods where a high proportion of the community is Black, Latinx, or Indigenous. In contrast, Amazon’s corporate offices are in zip codes with smaller percentages of Black, Latinx and Indigenous residents, falling below the line in the graph above. Amazon’s logistics infrastructure, and its associated pollution, is concentrated in communities of color.
A major hub of Amazon’s logistics network is in the Inland Empire, an area east of Los Angeles comprising San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Amazon has 23 warehouses in the Inland Empire, centered around the city of San Bernardino. Amazon is the largest private employer in the area, and its presence in the region continues to expand: Amazon was recently announced as the tenant for a highly controversial airport expansion, where Prime Air planes will bring even more harmful pollution. EarthJustice.org reports that “The [new] airport terminal threatens to generate one ton of toxic air pollution every single day,” with over 500 new truck trips a day.
The residents who face this pollution are majority Latinx, and many are immigrants. These residents already face the worst ozone levels in America, according to reports from 2020 and 2019. The same reports rank San Bernardino and Riverside counties in the top 10 worst year-round soot levels nationwide.
The American Lung Association reports that exposure to ozone pollution can lead to increased asthma rates, increased risk of respiratory infections, increased risk of needing to be hospitalized related to asthma or other lung diseases, low birth weight and decreased lung function in newborns, and premature death. Year-round soot, or particle pollution, exposure has similar negative effects. Research has linked year-round particle pollution to the development of asthma in children, the worsening of COPD in adults, and slowed lung growth function in children and adolescents. A recent report found that people with COVID-19 who are exposed to higher levels of soot are more likely to die from the disease. Air pollution also damages the immune system, leaving those who have been exposed to air pollution at greater risk.
This reality cannot be brushed aside as an inevitable downside of economic progress: it results from calculations to ensure maximum profit, backed by the economic and political clout to get away with the resulting damage. Without considerations for whose communities will be harmed, Black and Latinx communities will continue to bear the brunt of Amazon’s pollution. We must understand the stories from community members, realize that this injustice is unacceptable, and fight for a possibility that respects and values all people.
Communities are fighting back
Communities on the front lines have not been silent. In the Inland Empire, several community groups are fighting back against the expansion of the San Bernardino airport. The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), Sierra Club, Teamsters Local 1932, Warehouse Worker Resource Center, Inland Congregations United for Change and more have joined together as the San Bernardino Airport Community Coalition and are fighting for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) between Amazon and the community surrounding the San Bernardino airport. If Amazon signs the CBA, the company would be required to provide living wage jobs for local residents, zero emissions electric trucks, and other mitigations against pollution that the development will cause.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), a group of tech workers allied in the effort for environmental justice, supports CCAEJ in their fight for a CBA with Amazon. Communities like the Inland Empire are affected by pollution that they didn’t create. This may sound familiar: globally, the people affected by climate change first and hardest are often minority communities that have polluted the least. The goals of climate justice and environmental justice are aligned: ensure that the effects of pollution and climate change are not disproportionately borne by communities of color.
AECJ and CCAEJ want Amazon to address the racial equity gap that its current Climate Pledge is missing, including:
- Zero emissions by 2030 while investing first in communities most impacted by Amazon’s pollution.
- All new warehouse development projects or warehouse leases require that the developer has signed a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). The already proposed CBA addresses concerns for both clean air and good jobs, including: zero emission delivery vehicles and permanent jobs with living wages and health benefits.
- Racial Equity Impact Assessments integrated into business decisions to determine whether communities of color will be disproportionately harmed.
Appendix: Distribution of Amazon’s warehouse operations
Notes on methodology:
- For the purposes of this investigation, we focused on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities of color in the United States. We approximated the percentage of people belonging to these groups in each zip code using ACS variables B03002e4, B03002e5, and B03002e12.
- We chose zip code as the most granular connection between ACS data and building address. Zip code tabulation area (ZCTA) to zip code mapping is approximate; more info can be found on the Census website.
- Median zip code is calculated by sorting all zip codes in a given metropolitan area (e.g. Seattle, WA) by the percentage described above, then selecting the middle zip code (or, averaging between the two middle zip codes in cases where there was an even number of zip codes). Zip codes with 0 population were excluded. A value in the x-axis of the graph can be read as follows — a data point in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA region with an x-axis value of 11.38% implies that half of populated zip codes in the Seattle area are less than 11.38% Black, Latinx, and Indigenous.
- We chose percentage in the median zip code rather than aggregate percentage in the metropolitan area as a comparison point to include the impact that disproportionate population density has in exposing people of color to the effects of environmental racism — white communities are often less dense, with zip codes that are both larger in area and less populated. This tends to mean that there are a lot of zip codes to choose from that don’t include a high population of people of color within a given city, even in metropolitan areas with large communities of color. In a non-segregated metropolitan area, median and aggregate percentages would be equivalent.
- Amazon Fulfillment Center, Sortation Center, Air Hub, and Inbound Cross Dock Locations: MWPVL 
- Corporate Locations: We were unable to source a publicly available list of Amazon corporate offices. We searched for for office addresses for the biggest Amazon corporate locations  in the United States (Seattle , Northern Virginia [4, 5], New York , the Bay Area [7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14], Boston , and Los Angeles .
- Demographic Data: American Community Survey 2014–2018 5-Year Data by Zip Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA) 
- Metropolitan Area Data: HUD Crosswalk 
- Jeff’s Houses [19, 20]