Many believe that tech giants have as great a responsibility to the planet as companies in other sectors — perhaps more so given the ubiquity of their products. Over time, companies like Apple, Amazon, and other tech behemoths have come around (be it by legislation or by choice) to greener operations. Yet, many questions remain around how environmentally friendly some of these massive companies truly are.
To start, Amazon, eBay, and others have come under fire for not adhering to sustainable practices. In terms of operations, most tech giants have been criticized for their use of non-renewable energy sources — a fact Amazon only recently has attempted to change. The company announced in June that it’s supporting the construction and operation of an 80 megawatt solar farm in Virginia, the power of which will support data centers. Amazon also states that it hopes to eventually operate using all renewable energy.
Greenpeace releases reports estimating how technology companies are doing in terms of sustainability and use of renewable sources. Predictably, Apple, Google, and Facebook are the frontrunners in this regard, having worked on establishing sustainable operations for years now while advocating their competition do the same, even as Amazon and particularly Oracle lag behind. Greenpeace’s 2015 Click Clean Report rates these companies in terms of their transparency, policy, efficiency, and advocacy. IBM, Microsoft, and Rackspace are somewhere in the middle, having made moderate progress toward a “greener internet” but not “leading the way.”
While these tech giants can always increase their efforts to greener operations, actually selling green products seems to be another story — especially from companies already suffering with an image problem. Amazon started a website in 2012 called Vine.com — a site for eco-friendly products like food and health supplies under a company it owns called Quidsi. The website has since transformed into Vinemarket.com. But the site itself doesn’t appear on Amazon.com proper, nor does it appear related. Many of the complaints consumers have with Amazon regard its role as an online box store. Just as protests against WalMart and its eradication of small, local businesses still occur, protests against Amazon’s market domination abound. While smaller e-commerce shops of course exist, they have developed in part in response to the consumer complaints about the lack of eco-responsible options on the internet. Take, for example, Green Point of View, a recently launched company aimed at providing sustainable products and environmental education. It joins a host of e-retail mom-and-pop shops that many consumers feel are necessary alternatives if they want to avail themselves of eco-friendly products while not foregoing the convenience of the internet.
In what could be considered a move toward some eco-friendly practices, recent reports indicate that Amazon India is piloting a refurbished product section of its website on which the company will sell devices returned to the manufacturer because of some fault, repaired and put back on sale at discounted prices with a warranty of six months or more. Unboxed items, which have been opened but are otherwise unused, will also be for sale. Some companies have already ventured into the refurbishment market, but Amazon is the biggest name to have announced its entry. The strategy is sound. Reports note that the refurbished and unboxed phone market grew by 50% in 2014 to about $1.5-2 billion and is expected to grow 30% annually until 2020. (It bears noting that this market is specific to India, where cheaper phones are more popular than their more expensive counterpart. Perhaps Amazon sees no need to perpetuate these recycling efforts in other phone markets where its higher-end phones are more popular, making it clear that the effort is not about recycling, but profit.)
What would be novel is a section of Amazon devoted to green products, or a category of sustainable items with information about the product’s supply chain and production. What if smartphone giants developed and sold devices that provided detailed information about where the devices’ ingredients came from, echoing a practice common in determining the provenance of so-called blood diamonds? (This reporting on conflict minerals was made mandatory by the U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act for companies using gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten.) The next question is: would consumers care? As Green Point of View President Tim Fortner said: “There’s a lack of information for consumers that we want to fix. I honestly believe that understanding why to choose eco-friendly alternatives is more important than just buying them blindly.”
Given that concern over the use of conflict minerals has only prompted concrete action in the past few decades, expect to wait a couple more before governments and consumers alike demand “green” transparency from technology companies.