While initial forecasts for 2020 predicted slumping revenues and profits amid pandemic fears, the final verdict is anything but that. Over the past year, retail sales for technology industry increased 31% in 2020 over 2019 according to a Consumer Technology Association report. Sales of tech products increased rather than pulling back if anything. However, increased demand for tech should not make us forget the environmental impact of developing and producing hardware. To celebrate Earth Day this year, we spotlight at some of the greenest companies in tech.
To find the top sustainable tech companies, we look at several factors, including how much green power they use, their sustainability practices, and use of hazardous chemicals. Green power, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency is power produced from “…solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, eligible biomass, and low-impact small hydroelectric sources.” On the sustainability side, we take into consideration usage of recycled materials in product and overall sustainable design.
Google sits atop the EPA’s Green Power Partnership list of tech and telecom companies using the highest amount of green power, with 7,492,567,647 kWh annual power usage. The percentage of their power usage derived from green sources sits at 106%, reflecting their purchases of green power credits. Their green power comes entirely from solar and wind resources. Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. also ranked number 1 on the 2021 Clean200 list, a ranking of publicly traded companies using clean power.
On the sustainability and environmental impact side, their products are produced free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and (brominated flame retardants (BFR), both of which negatively impact the environment. In their self-published Environmental Report for 2020, they state their intentions for designing net-zero carbon workplaces and new building constructions have green building certifications. In the same report, they share that they design devices to utilize higher amounts of recycled content where possible and worked with their shipping partners to reduce shipping emissions.
The tech giant behind the bestselling smartphone in 2020, Apple has historically maintained a fairly positive rating amongst most green power and sustainability watchdogs. Given a B- rating by Greenpeace in a 2017 report, they rank #5 on the EPA’s list of companies using the highest amount of green power with 2,094,103,551 kWh and 101% total green power use.
In addition to using green power, Apple also made strides in reducing its environmental impact by reducing hazardous chemical usage at their own facilities. Their final assembly sites for the iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, AirPods, and HomePod have Zero Waste to Landfill certification. They also note that they reduced supply chain greenhouse gas emissions by more than one million metric tons in their 2020 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report. On the product side, their products come in fairly minimalist packaging with fewer bundled accessories than in previous years, much to the chagrin of users.
Given the highest grade of any company by Greenpeace in their 2017 Greener Electronics report, Fairphone is a smartphone producer based in the Netherlands. They maintain a B Corporation Certification, mean they meet a “…high standard of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability.” Fairphone claims their smartphones are the most sustainable smartphones in the world by embracing an upgradeable and repairable design, thereby extending their lifetime.
Fairphone also provides a high level of transparency on their supply chain by publishing a list of suppliers for their devices. They publish what parts of the world their hardware and raw materials come from, in addition to the names of their suppliers and the number of materials used in production. It should be noted that they do not set limits on greenhouse gases nor commit to a renewable energy quota, as noted by Greenpeace in their report.
Second only to Google on the EPA’s Green Power Partnership ranking, Microsoft used 5,982,112,000 kWh of green power in 2020, from a combination of hydro, solar, and wind sources. They maintain a strong Corporate Social Responsibility program that has commitments to support many causes, including economic opportunity, protecting individuals’ rights, and sustainability. In a January 2020 presentation, they stated that have been carbon neutral across the world since 2012, with a goal of being carbon negative in 2030. By 2050, they aim to have negated all the carbon produced by them since their founding in 1975. In the accompanying blog post, they promised to use 60% renewable energy by the end of the year, with a goal of 70% by 2023.
As a part of the Corporate Social Responsibility program, they have an internal department that charges a carbon fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon emissions. They then invest money charged as a result of the emissions in eco-friendly companies and projects that reduce carbon emissions, recycle e-waste, or generate green power. On the product side, Microsoft supports end-of-life recycling programs for devices, batteries, and packaging. They also aim to decrease the amount of packaging material used with each device. In 2019, Microsoft also made headlines for producing 825,000 CarbonNeutral certified Xbox consoles, a world first for a gaming system.
In 2017, Greenpeace gave Samsung a D- grade for environmental friendliness, noting how the world’s largest smartphone maker placed a low priority on its environmental impact. Since then, the tech giant has made great strides in improving its accountability and providing a high level of transparency. Greenpeace’s 2017 report also noted Samsung provided a good degree of transparency and giving them a C, the company’s best grade in that report.
So what has the company done in the following years to improve their sustainability? In their 2020 Sustainability Report, they stated their goal of 100% renewable energy usage within the US by the end of 2020. According to the EPA’s ranking, they ended up using 1,246,201,605 kWh of green power from various sources, which made up 99% of their total power use. While they did not meet their goal, they came close and improved greatly since Greenpeace’s 2017 report. At that time, only 1% of their operations used power from renewable energy sources.
Their other sustainability efforts have also improved since the 2017 report, with them switching over to recycled and sustainably sourced packaging in 2019. The use of recycled plastics also extends to their devices, with their aim of increasing usage of recycled plastics to 500,000 tones in products such as refrigerators, washing machines, TVs, monitors, and air conditioners. They also set goals to extend product lifespans by increasing accessibility to their repair service channels and improving overall product durability as measured by strength, drop resistance, and waterproofing.