When it comes to sustainable capitalism, the role of big companies is particularly important because they have the exceptional power of advancing sustainability in the long-run. A story that the companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Alibaba, and Google are part of the portfolio of Generation Investment Management, a sustainability-conscious investment firm, is a good example of how promising these companies are in this context1.
Let me zoom in to Big Tech for digging deep into the reality. Today, each company has a dedicated webpage explaining their sustainability commitments:
- Sustainability at Facebook: We commit to becoming water positive by 2030.
- Amazon Sustainability: Further and Faster, Together. Net-Zero Carbon by 2040.
- Apple: We’re carbon neutral. And by 2030, every product you love will be too.
- Netflix: Net Zero + Nature. Net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022, and every year thereafter.
- Google Sustainability: Carbon neutral since 2007. Carbon free by 2030.
- Microsoft Sustainability: Good for business, good for the planet.
In this post, I will examine individual pages to get a better understanding of how they look at the complex global challenges.
- While there are some differences in success metrics, target year, and action plans, sustainability is clearly one of the top priorities for the companies as part of their day-to-day operations.
- Two common areas of focus are (1) use of renewable energy at data centers and office buildings, and (2) supply chain enhancement from sourcing to last-mile delivery.
- Ethical aspects of sustainability are under-emphasized, and how they consider various externalities for the society and local communities is unclear.
What Big Tech cares
I investigated Big Tech's sustainability commitment as follows:
- Create a word cloud from their "sustainability" website2
- Web scraper + word cloud generator: takuti/cloudtree on GitHub
- I analyzed the top page + 1 level deeper from the link tree. This is based on an assumption that the contents at the top level reflect the company's most important messages.
- See which terms attract me the most to infer high-level characteristics
- Read through their website and capture what the word cloud didn't tell
Note that I do not intend to say which company is better or worse. All activities are equally valuable for our life, and I highly respect every single effort made by the organizations and people who are working hard on a daily basis.
Interestingly, the word
water dominates Facebook's word cloud.
In my understanding, their apps and services are least hardware-dependent among Big Tech because they rarely sell physical products with limited exceptions such as Oculus. It could be the reason why they convey such a unique message with a special emphasis on water unlike the others, who commonly speak about carbon emissions and electricity use at the highest priority.
center should represent their efforts on optimizing electricity use at data centers. Notice that data centers are critical assets where a significant amount of energy is consumed for running their web services, storing datasets (e.g., Facebook/Instagram posts), and analyzing them to build an AI solution.
When we take a closer look at the website, it's clear that they are focusing not only on water but also the other natural resources, as well as challenges associated with supply chain. It is not straightforward for me to see what kind of suppliers they are engaging with for what purposes, but being responsible for third-party relationships in a broad sense must be critical for Facebook, as a global leader of social networks and communications.
supply chain plays a key role in their sustainability commitment.
Unless any special treatments are made, every single Amazon delivery contributes to negative environmental effects. But supply chain is a long journey, and many different first/third-parties are involved at different phases. Therefore, accumulating subtle improvements from manufacturing and packaging to long-haul freight and last-mile delivery is a must to achieve an ultimate goal, and the keywords
packaging show these ideas.
Another point I've noticed is the relatively bigger presence of
customer. It nicely represents Amazon Leadership Principles, "Customer Obsession" and "Strive to be Earth's Best Employer", in particular.
Besides the environmental aspects of sustainability, they also highlight Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As SDGs depict, climate issues are not the only type of problems we're facing, and how we live with others is equally important. Meanwhile, the detail of their sustainable supply chain is an interesting read; micro-mobility and autonomous delivery, for example, are indeed making the delivery process more sustainable.
Apple, as a device designer, cares a lot about how their devices are made.
It's clear the company is seriously conscious about
material that forms our iPhone, Apple Watch, Mac, etc., and they seem to be aggressively reducing carbon footprint in their manufacturing process.
Moreover, we don't want to overlook the word
recycled. Every time we purchase a new Apple device, Apple Trade In asks us to "return" an old one with decent monetary incentive. Such initiatives should result in positive environmental and social impacts. For instance, less hardware gets wasted, and more people become able to get convenient devices at an affordable price.
Even after taking a deeper look at their website, a key message stays: Make Apple devices environmentally friendly. That said, Apple also publishes many inspiring articles under Newsroom, which was out of scope for creating the word cloud, and they do care a wide variety of topics e.g., "Apple selects 15 Black- and Brown-owned businesses for first-of-its-kind Impact Accelerator".
Netflix's use of words looks relatively generic and diverse, but starting from a big
Global, I noticed multiple geographic mentioning in there e.g.,
Planet. It demonstrates how they holistically consider the environmental issues at the planet-scale.
Additionally, the words
science depict a close relationship with academia, and we can easily imagine they are taking scientific-based approaches to analyze and overcome the problems.
The uniqueness of their sustainability efforts could be in storytelling. As the website mentions "Entertain to Sustain", their streaming video contents provide great opportunities for people all over the world to learn about the global challenges. Taking actions is not always easy, and hence conveying the messages in the form of entertainment (e.g., art, music, video) is a powerful way to quickly build an intuition and eliminate any psychological barriers.
It is clear that the energy aspect is a core of their sustainability goals.
We're taking advantage of their data-intensive solutions (e.g., Gmail, Google Photos, Google Maps) on a daily basis, and all of them are relying on massive energy supply to operate data centers without down time.
Plus, I guess
building in their context includes not only data centers but also office buildings, as their amazing office facilities are widely recognized. It's surely possible to make the physical locations friendly both for people and the environment.
Like Amazon and Apple, Google is selling their own hardware products such as Google Pixel and Google Home. Hence, supply chain excellence is certainly important to do the right thing both for people and the planet. At an individual level, Google encourages us to fully leverage their products to contribute to global initiatives. Their blog post "Sustainable living tips for life at home", for example, shows a use case of Nest Thermostat and Google Earth.
Although it's not fair as their corporate logo gives the largest space to put the most words, I feel Microsoft's word cloud uniformly covers a wide variety of issues we've seen above, such as
carbon emission, and
renewable energy. It indicates their website gives the most condensed information about how technology helps advancing sustainability goals.
One thing to realize is that their message is often conveyed along with their cloud computing solution, Microsoft Azure, as we see
Azure in larger fonts. A key statement shouldn't differ that much from the other companies—data center and renewable energy—but the use of such technical product name optimizes the reader's persona. A potential downside here is, for those who are unfamiliar with what Azure is, they won't be able to easily receive Microsoft's messages.
Microsoft's page is informative in terms of not only what they are doing but also what we (mainly as a business owner) can do; they share the details of various stories and aggressively educate us to proceed together. I highly respect such an inclusive attitude, and collaboration & knowledge sharing are crucial steps to holistically tackle the problem. Furthermore, they provide a tool like "Sustainability Calculator" to help us.
As we've seen so far, Big Tech is seriously treating the challenges and aggressively sharing their activities. Commitments are confirmed.
However, last but not least, I personally feel the consideration about software-side sustainability is lacking. To be more precise, I strongly believe the big companies must be particularly responsible for:
of their products, to:
- minimize the risk of habit-forming products,
- avoid unnecessary polarization, and
- eventually protect our humanity.
Since the impact is more visible and unlikely sacrifices their long-term profit, it's relatively "easy" to speak about hardware-side of the problems like climate and supply chain. But, ethics, diversity, equity, inclusion, and humanity are also important parts of sustainability. They must be mindful of the contents that are exposed to the end users, especially in the AI era that generates millions of recommendations simply based on profit objectives.
I know there are active debates in this domain, and Big Tech does care about these problems. My point is that the concerns aren't treated well enough relative to the easy-speaking topics. Thus, I hope more awareness is encouraged sooner than later so that we can give additional pressures to the organizations to go one step further for advancing sustainability in the true sense.
2. It should be noticed that there is a room for improving data preprocessing and word normalization, and several meaningless words possibly contaminate an insight. Moreover, some companies prefer publishing PDF documents to web articles, but I didn't analyze texts in PDF files, which makes their word clouds less accurate. ↩
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Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a product developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. Throughout my career, I have practically worked as a full-stack software engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, sales engineer, data scientist, machine learning engineer, and product manager. See my "now" page for more about what I am doing lately.
Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of organizations I am/was belonging to.