Can the Internet Actually Be Green?

Greenpeace released their annual click clean scorecard announcing Apple, Facebook, and Google as the greenest tech companies — we read the entire report, but still have questions.

We’re not economists, environmental scientists, or hardware specialists, but we care passionately about sustainability. As designers and technologists, we think beyond paper and screens — to how our work impacts people, progress, and the environment.

When we saw the latest reports that Apple, Facebook, and Google topped Greenpeace’s clean energy report — we were curious to know more. How does our online behavior impact energy consumption? What more can we do? And, what makes one tech giant more green than the others?

We read the report, and we learned that these scores are based on things like transparency, commitment, advocacy, and reliance on renewable versus so-called dirty energies. But we still wanted to talk through our thoughts. Our Creative Director, Robbie Bruzus, has written about sustainability in tech before, so we pulled him aside to continue the conversation.

Why should we care about our digital footprint?

Energy consumption concerns will always exist and grow. Barring some cataclysmic event, they will never decrease. It will only grow as the world’s population — and demand for energy — grows. We’re shifting from a paradigm of limited information and a need for material things to unlimited information and little need for material things. Getting world leaders and heads of industry to accept this will take time, but the more that large companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google set the standards for clean energy usage, the quicker we’ll get there.

Greenpeace talks about the evolution of the app — from us having real world, real things, to everything now being in the Cloud. The Cloud requires a lot of energy to function and process, and it’s only increasing. They say that, if the cloud were its own country, it would be 6th in energy generation. The challenge now is getting these major tech companies to commit to and work towards renewable energy.

True, but unlike hard goods that require finite resources (oil, wood, minerals), the Cloud minimizes the use of non-renewable resources (other than the phone/hardware itself) — which is advantageous for environmental preservation. If we can shift more energy consumption of the world to solar, wind, and other clean sources, tech energy consumption will be light as a cloud.

They also say that “green streaming” is crucial because online video is the biggest driver of consumer internet data (Netflix and AWS are the biggest drivers, and they received an F). We think we’re consuming less by buying less material products like DVDs, but should we be concerned with our data consumption as well? Should we watch less Netflix to save the environment?

Nothing will ever be perfect, and the shift to streaming has likely already made huge strides in reducing our collective carbon footprint. Netflix shouldn’t be singled out here, let’s not forget the amount of content that we’re generating daily with video services like Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. However, I can’t imagine that streaming technologies consume even 1/10th the energy required for shipping physical media like DVDs. What if there were a utility built into all devices that tallied the amount of data you consume, then calculated it’s resulting carbon footprint? Simple digital self-awareness such as that might encourage people to more closely monitor their data consumption.

You’re right. So until we see that built in, what can we do to encourage our favorite tech/app companies to move towards cleaner energy?

I think Greenpeace’s effort, and the wide publication of their scorings is a great step toward corporate/environmental transparency. Let’s hope that in historic competitive fashion, these poorly scoring companies follow Apple’s lead and compete not only on design, but infrastructure and environmental stewardship.

Do smaller startups and tech companies have a better ability to start out clean, and have an impact?

Unfortunately, smaller businesses don’t have the sway that companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google do. For the small amount of revenue they generate for utilities, they’re not likely in the position to make demands of utilities to shift to more renewable energies. When the big guys set the precedent, all users will likely benefit from new renewable energy measures.

Is Greenpeace the right voice and advocate for green tech?

I believe Greenpeace’s history of radical actions in opposition to people and corporations that are anti-environment has left them with an image that is anti-business. This approach of scoring companies, as you would to politicians, could help to further legitimize their voice in the world of commerce and business.

Do you think tech companies pay this report any attention?

Tech companies that tout good scores will have another thing to hold over their competitors, further increasing their value. In turn, that will spur others to live up to those standards and compete. I’d be curious to see how Greenpeace scores non-tech, oil dependent companies, then compare to companies who are working to build the Cloud. My guess is that tech would come out looking like sparkling-clean angels.

The big question: Can the internet actually be green?

If we take Tesla’s island experiment as an example, I believe that it’s totally achievable. Imagine Musks’ model for the behemoth gigafactory in the Nevada desert, but instead of making cars and batteries, it stores and runs servers. Don’t quote me on it, but I assume that same infrastructure, where solar powers the entire factory, can be applied to a server farm.

How can we get more people to care?

No one in the world today lives apart from tech. Tech is omnipresent. Because of that, it is a concern for all.

We encourage you to read the full report for yourself, it’s fascinating.

Robbie Bruzus is Creative Director at Level, a purpose-driven digital design firm. Continue the conversation with us below.