Jeff Bezos, the CEO of online retailer Amazon, has a $150bn fortune, making him the richest man in the world. Yet the foundations of his wealth are iffy to say the least.
Amazon engages in tax avoidance to avoid contributing to the countries whose infrastructure it benefits from. It pays poverty wages – some staff in Scotland were reportedly forced to camp outside in winter in order to save on commuting costs. And staff are said to be under such time pressure that they resort to urinating in bottles in order to meet targets.
Casual observers can be forgiven, therefore, for finding it a little odd that the Church Commissioners for England invests charitable funds in Amazon. As was the case last month when the national media gleefully reported the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “hypocrisy” after he gave a speech condemning Amazon’s tax affairs and remuneration policies.
Of course, as so often in life, the true situation is more nuanced. Engagement is a key part of the Church’s investment strategy, on the basis that “it is more effective to be in the room with these companies seeking change as an active shareholder than speaking from the sidelines”.
Most notably, the Church claimed victory last year when the oil and gas company ExxonMobil committed to makes disclosures on the business implications of climate change.
That said, divestment is not entirely off the Church’s menu. It has divested from certain sectors such as thermal coal and tar sands producers, and also from companies which are “unresponsive to our individual engagement concerns”.
And following a General Synod meeting in July, Church Times reported that an amendment had been passed to disinvest from fossil-fuel companies by 2023 unless those firms can prove that they are on the path to tackling climate change. This was despite the objections of the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who argued that disinvestment “offers little more than a one-off piece of media coverage and a listing in the divestment campaigners’ catalogue of supporters.”
Returning to Amazon, the Church has said that it will continue with its investment. As a cynic, I can’t help but fear that Amazon falls into the “unresponsive” category, but the Commissioners will know more about their interaction with the company than I do.
It might provide some reassurance if the Church could give more detailed disclosure on its approach to Amazon, but unfortunately, it feels unable to comment publicly on ongoing engagements. Until there is some action, therefore, we will have to trust that they know what they are doing.
Gareth Jones is editor of Charity Finance