Written by Kathrine Schwab for Fast Company.
For many years, the biggest technology companies have made pioneering commitments to reducing their energy footprint. Google and Apple claim to be completely carbon neutral: Apple says all its facilities are powered entirely by renewable energy, while Google has become the world’s largest buyer of renewable energy to offset its energy costs. In 2018, Apple said it had reduced carbon emissions by 58% since 2011. Microsoft is on track to reach 60% renewable energy across its data centers by the end of 2019, while Facebook’s goal is to reach 100% renewable energy by 2020. In 2019, Amazon announced that it is aiming to make half of its shipments carbon neutral by 2030, and the company says it has eliminated 244,000 tons of packaging materials, avoided 500 million shipping boxes, and continues to invest in electric vehicles, aviation bio fuels, and renewable energy.
Given that many corporations aren’t as focused on sustainability, the tech companies’ efforts to reduce emissions appear at first to be a good track record. But as the fight against climate change heats up, the big tech companies’ claims and commitments still are not enough to make an impact on a widening emissions gap—in 2018, global emissions levels rose 2.7% after years of not growing at all. The UN says that these levels must drop 55% by 2030 to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
And while much of that growth in emissions can be attributed to a range of corporate bad actors, some leaders in the climate community think tech companies are not doing enough to use their clout and tech prowess to make real change.
“Let’s get over this notion that [tech companies] are some kind of heroes. They’re not,” says Richard Wiles, the director of the Center for Climate Integrity. “They’re doing the least they can do to get the most greenwashing benefit out of it,” he says, referring to the practice of promoting an organization’s environmental record when its products and practices actually aren’t good for the climate.
In February 2019, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal resolution, designed to tackle the principal challenges facing the country right now. While this framework’s main goal is for the United States to become net carbon zero by 2030, it also advances a larger, more revolutionary agenda. Because slashing carbon emissions will require overhauling the entire economy, it also demands fixes for other underlying issues: income inequality, housing and healthcare affordability, and race and gender injustice.
As the United States begins the transition to a carbon neutral economy, it’s vital that the biggest technology companies—Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft—lead the way. The “big five” of tech command a significant portion of the economy. The International Monetary Fund estimates their collective worth at $3.5 trillion, more than the GDP of the United Kingdom. What’s more: Their products, hardware, cloud networks, and internet infrastructure touch nearly every industry and every individual. Of all the industries in the U.S., tech’s reach is perhaps the more difficult to conceptualize, but also the broadest.
What happens in the technology industry today radiates out into nearly every corner of the economy. Which is why, for the Green New Deal to take root in the U.S., Big Tech needs to be involved. These major companies have both the capacity for innovation, the economic resources, and the political clout to precipitate the shifts laid out in the Green New Deal framework. Will they decide to take the lead?
TAKING STOCK OF TECH’S FOOTPRINT
Big Tech’s collective stance of reaching carbon neutrality is laudable, particularly because according to Johan Falk, research fellow at Stockholm Resilience Center and the Future Earth Institute, energy usage is the biggest barrier the industry faces in becoming truly sustainable.
Falk is one of the co-authors of the Exponential Roadmap, a step-by-step framework that shows how every industry—including technology—can slash its emissions in half by 2030. “Electricity is a key part of the emissions of many industries, but perhaps none to such as great an extent as the digital sector,” according to the Roadmap. “That’s why ensuring that its electricity comes from renewable sources is the most effective strategy to reduce those emissions fast.” Big Tech, undeniably, has recognized this. But tech’s reach, again, is difficult to fully map out. While companies like Apple and Google have made significant strides greening their own operations, they are part of a massive global industrial network that all needs to be converted to renewable energy. According to Falk and his colleagues, the digital industry is the largest buyer of renewable energy, but “just 50 terawatt-hours of the 835 TWh used by the industry came from renewable sources.”
In this respect, Apple is a positive example: Beyond powering its own operations with 100% renewable energy, it’s now working to shift its suppliers and distribution chain to the same target. Colin Smith, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, told GreenBiz that “we are now moving into a world where corporates are enabling their supply chain and their partners and consumers.” That, certainly, tracks with the aims of the Green New Deal, which calls for promoting the exchange of technology and expertise internationally and along supply chains. However, that’s far from uniform practice across the tech industry. Amazon, for instance, has yet to even report its carbon emissions, which has led to employee backlash. But months later, CEO Jeff Bezos announced the company will report its emissions later this year. An Amazon spokesperson told Fast Company: “We are on a path to becoming the most sustainable retailer and cloud provider in the world.”
DRIVING THE CONVERSATION AROUND SUSTAINABILITY
As Big Tech continues to do the work of quantifying its reach and impact and pushing for clean energy transitions across its domains, Falk says that one of the biggest ways that tech companies today can impact the fight against climate change is by helping people and companies make more sustainable decisions. After all, everyone is searching for information and buying goods through the internet, and making decisions based on what algorithms choose to show them.
“These companies have a tremendous influence in these decisions,” Falk says. “I think there’s an opportunity to actually encourage the solutions, which are really good for the climate and not be neutral in terms of solutions which drive toward five degrees warming versus 1.5 degrees of warming. You can do that in a lot of different ways, but today, a lot of these technologies and services work as an accelerator in the wrong direction.”
E-commerce platforms like Amazon could push users toward buying carbon neutral products and help consumers make more climate-friendly decisions around when they expect a product to arrive on their doorstep. Advertising giants Google and Facebook could force advertisers who want to promote high-carbon products or services to include the footprint of doing so in their ads. And platforms like Google could introduce small changes to search results to nudge people toward better information about climate change (Google has come under fire for doing the opposite and promoting climate conspiracy theories in search results). In essence, Big Tech could use its deep influence in the global economy to meaningfully push everyone in the right direction.
THINKING BEYOND CARBON NEUTRALITY
But in order to do so genuinely, tech needs to ensure that its own products and services would pass the same tests. As Kali Akuno recently wrote in In These Times, a Green New Deal will “launch a no-holds-barred debate about the need to transform all productive relationships in our society. That includes talking about the physical objects we use every day—in our homes, our workplaces, our streets, our cities.” Increasingly, those objects are technology, or tech-enabled.
Hardware materials like smartphones, for instance, are made out of rare earth metals like gold and cobalt that are intensively mined in developing countries though a process that both damages the environment and fails to protect workers. Furthermore, tech has often leaned on a strategy of “planned obsolescence” to encourage people to continue buying new products. Tech products are designed to break down after a few years of use and are difficult to repair, necessitating further production and contributing to a global e-waste crisis.
From a product perspective, the industry needs to shift from a model of extraction and waste-creation to one that emphasizes sustainable material usage, recycling, and repair. That shift is already starting. Apple has said publicly that it wants to stop mining the earth altogether and is working on developing synthetic versions of rare metals, part of its plan to make electronics using only recycled or renewable materials. Microsoft is also working to ramp up product recycling: This year, as part of its new sustainability commitments, the company will be implementing a new program to refurbish and resell server hardware. Google is working along similar lines: As of 2018, 18% of the servers the company deployed across its enormous data centers were refurbished.
The Green New Deal could further incentivize Big Tech to abandon the innovate-make-waste model that’s defined it since its inception. Researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute say that stronger federal laws in the U.S. could help reduce waste from the technology sector by mandating more recycling infrastructure and requiring producers, like tech companies, to take more active responsibility for the whole life cycle of their products. Akuno writes that policies that emerge under the Green New Deal must tackle these needs.
ADDRESSING THE INEQUALITY CRISIS
Advancing this more sustainable paradigm across the tech industry could also meet another Green New Deal goal: creating good-paying jobs. The Green New Deal positions the work and innovation needed to decarbonize the economy as a chance to create millions of living-wage employment opportunities for people, especially those who are financially struggling in the present economy.
But first, Big Tech needs to grapple with its role in perpetuating some of these struggles. Tech, in part, is driving a recent trend around inequity in the workplace. At big tech companies, many low-level positions are filled by contractors who don’t see the benefits that full-time employees do. “We see a bifurcated workforce within the big tech firms: We see a segment of workers that are making six figures and treated like royalty, and then we see another subset of workers where [the companies are] doing everything to minimize their costs, to not provide them with adequate benefits, to ensure that these workers are kept as precarious workers and are really struggling to make ends meet,” says Mark Paul, a fellow at the progressive think tank Roosevelt Institute and an assistant professor of economics at New College of Florida who recently co-authored a report on decarbonizing the U.S. economy through the Green New Deal.
The solution to this, Paul says, is simple. Companies need to implement living wages and good working conditions across their entire operations—just as they need to extend their efforts to reach 100% clean energy across their supply chains. “Importantly, these firms need to commit to providing true living wages to all workers and support workers’ rights to unionize, which many of the tech firms, like Amazon, have been vehemently opposed to,” he says. (Enabling organized labor is also a chief tenet of the Green New Deal framework; Amazon told Fast Company in a statement: “The fact is that Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees . . . For us, it will always be about providing a great employment experience through a direct connection with our employees and working together as a team to provide a world-class customer experience, and respecting rights to choose a union.”)
Currently, some tech companies lean on labor practices that perpetuate inequality and financial instability for workers. Google’s “shadow work force” of contract laborers, some of whom who work overtime without being paid, actually outnumbers its full-time employees. When its actual employees have revolted over the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases, Google has retaliated against them (the company says it prohibits retaliation in the workplace and gives employees multiple channels to report concerns). Facebook’s moderators living in Arizona are paid $28,800 annually—a fraction of the average $240,000 Facebook employee salary—to scrub the social networking site of anything that violates the company’s community standards, while lacking adequate access to mental health professionals (Facebook declined to comment on this story). Amazon is infamous for horrific working conditions in its factories (Amazon denies these allegations, and has more information about its factories on the company’s safety site). Apple also has a history of poor treatment of its factory workers (since its Foxconn scandal, the company has made an effort to improve its standards for safe and respectful workplaces).
While tech companies might care enough about the climate to invest in solar panels, the companies’ may be lagging behind in their understanding of worker rights as part of the same movement—which is crucial for meeting the aims of the Green New Deal. But there are meaningful ways the companies could address these problems, and it starts with paying all workers living wages. “Paying their workers a living wage isn’t going to hurt their business model,” Paul says. “It’s going to help them show that by not leaving workers behind we can be building a stronger economy.”
PUTTING MASSIVE INFLUENCE TO GOOD USE
On top of evolving their labor practices and sustainability efforts, tech companies have a more abstract role to play in advancing the aims of the Green New Deal: Putting their financial and political heft behind these causes.
Currently, tech has some work to do in this regard. Take Microsoft. In May, the company joined a group led by oil companies like BP, Exxon Mobil, and Shell that is proposing a low carbon tax, along with guaranteed legal immunity for any oil companies when it comes to climate change-related damages. Wiles, from the Center for Climate Integrity, says this policy would be catastrophic for tax payers, who would be forced to foot the bill for all coming disasters that were caused by climate change.
Microsoft, though, is aware of the concerns surrounding this path of action. “We believe it’s time for a serious national discussion on carbon pricing to drive greater action across all sectors, and the inclusive, bipartisan, and cross-industry coalition approach of [the Climate Leadership Council] offers one path forward towards that goal,” said a Microsoft spokesperson. “While we do not endorse all the existing elements of the current draft plan, by joining we have a seat at the table to help shape an effective final proposal.” For Wiles, tech companies should be using the fact that they often can get a seat at tables like this to push for sustainability initiatives that will actually create “the kind of change that we need,” he says.
Instead, there’s often a disconnect between rhetoric and action: A story in Gizmodo in February 2019 revealed how Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are helping to “automate” the climate crisis by providing big oil companies with the technological tools to streamline their operations and help them find even more oil. “You have a lot of big tech companies, in particular Microsoft and Google, simultaneously working with fossil fuel companies to speed the extraction of fossil fuel resources at a time when we need the half pulling more oil gas and fuel out of the ground,” Paul says. “They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth and that needs to stop.”
The phrase “as much as is technologically feasible” is littered throughout the Green New Deal. What will push that limit of feasibility is Big Tech throwing its innovation capacity behind it. “I’d like to see [Big Tech] taking more of a role in building out the green economy in particular,” Paul says. “Right now there’s a number of investments that need to be made to decarbonize the economy faster and drive down costs. So I think the big tech firms have an important role to play in investing much more than they’ve been doing to date here.”
As the text of the Green New Deal resolution makes clear, technology will be a critical component in decarbonizing the economy. Tech must underpin everything from a transition to clean energy, to creating more efficient manufacturing processes, to greening transportation and agriculture. Will the big tech companies devote their financial resources and human capital to solving those problems? “They’re going to get questions from young people, not just about footprint but about how their services are contributing to limiting global warming and protecting the living planet,” Falk says. “They should be able to explain that to all the people they want to hire next.”
This story has been updated with additional information about Apple’s factory conditions and a comment from Amazon about its factory conditions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability