Data obtained via Freedom of Information request by Durham group ECO DU shows that the University bought over £280,000 worth of items from Amazon.co.uk in the 2019/20 academic year.
Meanwhile, as of 30th April 2021, the University had over £2.1m worth of investments in total in Amazon.com, split between three of its investment portfolios.
Amazon has come under criticism in recent years for its environmental record, anti-competitive behaviour, and treatment of workers.
The University’s Ethical Investment Policy states that it “has committed to sustainable investment by positively supporting investments in sustainable companies and through establishing restrictions on some types of investments.”
Of the £280,000, almost £80,000 was spent on consumables, which refer to goods that are used up in consumption such as food or ink cartridges. Just under £48,000 was spent on books, with almost £9,000 spent on prizes.
The University’s investment portfolios hold equities in Amazon.com Inc, which are shares of the company. The total book cost, the amount they were bought for, is just under £1.5m, which means if the University were to sell them, it would make a profit of over £600,000 due to Amazon’s recent increase in value, in part due to its increase in sales during the pandemic.
Amazon has been the subject of a wide range of allegations in recent years. An article in The Washington Post in 2020 alleged that the company had threatened to fire workers who spoke out about the company’s environmental record.
The company has also been accused of poor treatment of workers in its warehouses, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, and by the European Commission for violating European competition law.
Amazon acts as both the owner of the marketplace, thereby receiving the data from it, and a retail seller within it, which gives them significant advantages over their competitor’s on the site.
Defenders of the company point out that it has committed to be net-zero by 2040.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has committed to investing $10 billion in the “Bezos Earth Fund” to help address the climate crisis.
The University’s Ethical Investment Policy states that it is “committed to ensuring that it makes investment decisions responsibly and with integrity.
“The University is an educational charity. A proportion of its assets are invested in order to generate a financial return to support the University’s objective which is to advance education, learning and research for the public benefit.
“The University has committed to sustainable investment by positively supporting investments in sustainable companies and through establishing restrictions on some types of investments.”
The University is committed to not investing in “companies that generate revenue from the manufacturing or production of tobacco, armaments or fossil fuel extractive companies.”
ECO DU told Palatinate: “We are appalled by these statistics. Amazon’s ethical record is shocking: no worker should have to urinate in plastic bottles during relentless shifts. Despite positive environmental targets in some areas, Amazon thrives on the encouragement of consumerism and exploitation, in addition to its tax avoidant and anti-competitive behavior.
“All these factors will affect vulnerable and marginalized groups hardest, especially those with lower incomes, people of colour, immigrant communities, those living in the Global South, and more. The University’s multi-faceted investment into its services shows, at best, a lack of care and, at worst, implicit support.
“ECO DU would recommend strengthening and broadening the University’s ethical investment standards and encouraging alternatives for Amazon, including avoiding publicising the company by giving vouchers for local and ethical businesses instead. With greater consideration, the support of convenience can be avoided. “