Impact Series

Amazon begins the ‘large’ raise to shrink the carbon footprint of its units to succeed in local weather targets

The generation of Amazon Echo Dot devices released in September 2020, which include tiger and panda designs, contain some recycled materials. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon’s newest Echo Dot is sold in charcoal, glacier white and twilight blue. But behind the scenes, the smart speakers that deliver Alexa are newly greened.

The Seattle-based tech giant is working to shrink its carbon footprint to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, an ambitious target and one that Amazon has convinced more than 100 other companies to join through its Climate Pledge.

To fulfill its climate promise, Amazon needs to curb emissions generated in every aspect of its trillion dollar business — including the climate debt created in the production, use and disposal of its Echo Dots, Fire TV devices, Fire tablets, Kindles and other products.

Experts in the sustainability industry say it’s a significant, potentially costly initiative. And while other tech companies appear to be a few steps ahead, Amazon is in a good position to make a meaningful difference given its resources and dominance in the technology and retail sectors. The key is making sure these greener practices are widespread and permanent in their adoption, according to those both in and outside of the company.

“I believe that their commitment is genuine and sincere, but the lift is huge,” said Dave Chen, CEO and chairman of Equilibrium, a global investment firm focused on sustainability.

The company is making progress in some areas:

  • Fourth-generation Echo and multiple Fire TV devices released in the fall contain 100% recycled aluminum and fabric, and 30-50% recycled plastic, depending on the product.
  • Amazon has a goal of using 100% recyclable packaging materials for its devices within two years, according to officials. It’s working to use cardboard packaging only from responsibly managed forests or recycled sources, as well as trimming the use of plastic bags in packaging.
  • It added a low-power mode feature to its newest plug-in Echo and Fire TV devices to curb power energy use when the electronics aren’t active; it plans to offer power-saving updates “over-the-air” for older products.
  • Amazon has a program for taking back its electronic devices. Items can be repaired, recycled or refurbished and sold through its pre-owned channel.

Amazon’s effort to green its own products is being spearheaded by Rachel Praetorius, who leads sustainability and hardware operations for Amazon Devices & Services.

“There’s so much passion around the organization for sustainability,” Praetorius said. “I’ve never taken a proposal to our senior leadership that’s been rejected. It’s always been, ‘Do that, and can we also do these other 10 things?’”

Rachel Praetorius, head of sustainability and hardware operations for Amazon Devices & Services. (Amazon Photo)

One of the program’s initiatives is building wind and solar power plants that generate the equivalent amount of energy consumed by its customers’ use of their new Echo devices. Amazon claims to be the first consumer electronics company to take this step. And while it’s initially offsetting the power used by select products, it will ultimately cover the energy used by all of its devices.

The promise creates an internal incentive for device engineers to design more energy-efficient products. It also puts the Amazon devices team in competition, if you will, with Amazon Web Services and other divisions who are likewise committed to procuring renewable energy to account for their direct power use. Yet that doesn’t seem to be a problem: the company this spring announced another slate of clean energy projects, and previously said it will meet its target of powering all of Amazon’s infrastructure with renewables by 2025 — five years ahead of its original goal.

But while Amazon has been successfully scaling its renewable power purchasing, ramping up its supplies of clean source material for devices remains sizeable hurdle, and it needs to be done correctly to have the most benefit.

“Are they moving toward supply-chain transparency, moving to a place where they’re requiring their suppliers to report the climate footprint, toxicity and water use of the materials in those components, in a transparent life-cycle methodology?” asked Rhys Roth, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure.

That approach is important, and within Amazon’s grasp, he said. “Tech companies are uniquely positioned to lead the way to transparent, standardized methodology for their suppliers to use.”

Amazon’s official supply chain standards seem to lack stringent requirements in the environmental space. Instead they “encourage suppliers to look for ways to improve energy efficiency, minimize energy consumption, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”

Amazon for many years was largely on the sidelines on environmental issues. Its early sustainability actions focused on packaging used by the company sellers in its virtual marketplace. It committed to clean energy in 2014, but was short on specifics. Then in 2019, as climate-engaged Amazon workers were putting increasing pressure on their employer, the company began rolling out more ambitious eco-initiatives. That included the Climate Pledge, and later a $2 billion fund to support climate-related startups. This week, it raised a $1 billion sustainability bond for climate and social projects.

The company released its first sustainability report last year, revealing some details about its carbon footprint. Amazon was responsible for 51.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMT CO2e) in 2019, a volume roughly on par with Singapore’s carbon footprint, and an increase over the previous year.

The largest source of carbon emissions fell under a category that covered Amazon-branded product manufacturing, device use and disposal, highlighting the need to target this area for reductions. The category also included “corporate purchases,” operating expenses, and business travel.

And how do some of Amazon’s competitors in the electronics space stack up?

Apple has long been criticized for making it difficult to repair and extend the lifespan of its iPhones and computers. But the company has pledged to make its products carbon neutral by 2030, and publicly shares more detailed information about its progress. It’s also using recycled materials, including recycled rare earth elements; is removing hazardous chemicals from its products; and making improvements to its packaging.

Microsoft is likewise more transparent than Amazon in its efforts to sustainably produce and dispose of its devices. Company reports on these efforts include pages of information on how it’s overseeing and working with suppliers to make sure they follow eco-friendly practices. Microsoft has an overarching waste sustainability initiative that includes making its Surface devices recyclable by 2030.

The shift of Amazon and other retail and tech giants toward more sustainable products is good news and can drive the creation, innovation and growth of the sustainable materials sector, Chen said. It can fuel a marketplace that ultimately drives down the costs of the planet friendly alternatives.

“That’s the power of a Walmart, that’s the power of an Amazon,” Chen said. “They can influence so much of the supply chain, that if they put their mind to it and put in the right incentives, they can quickly influence change.”

Praetorius acknowledged that while there is enthusiasm for sustainability efforts, changes are needed from within the company as well.

“I keep telling people that sustainability is not just my job, it’s your job too,” she said. “You have to embed it in every decision you make, you have to embed it in every process we have around the organization. It needs to just be baked into the way we think about our business, which takes time. We have to create new mechanisms and processes and tools to teach people how to do that, but that’s part of our journey.”

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