Searching online sustainability
They are inescapable in our daily lives and we might assume that their environmental footprint is just as small as the electricity it takes to load a webpage. We’re talking about websites. Think Google, Gmail, Facebook, Wikipedia, eBay, Linkedin, Youtube, Dropbox and more. We use them as search engines, for social interactions and for shopping. But behind all the great services these websites provide, one service does not get the attention it deserves: making sure visitors don’t have to worry about whether their use of the websites’ services is harming the environment or other people in any way.
Rank a Brand has tested that service in the latest sector update about the sustainability of some of the most well-known and consumer relevant websites. For that update, the websites behind those websites have been searched through, looking for policy and policy implementation examples that show the website aims to prevent negative environmental and social impact by its activities.
Websites of the large brands we looked at in this research tend to operate large data centers that require a lot of energy. In that sense, choosing and then transparently and actively communicating their use of renewable energy, would make these website brands great potential examples and stimulators for choosing renewables. Furthermore, a large quantity and diversity of electronic parts is needed to build and maintain those data centers. In order to make sure those parts are sourced sustainably and with respect for workers’ rights, website brands should have procurement policies with minimum criteria for both the suppliers they source from, and the suppliers of those suppliers. Additionally, as e-waste is globally reaching millions of tons per year, a fierce policy on electronic waste from data center servers and corporate computers by website brands is another criteria included in this update.
E-waste is a growing problem that all brands in this sector should consider when forming policies for how to properly dispose of their electronic waste such as data center servers and corporate computers. United Nations University’s estimations indicate that current e-waste arising across the twenty- seven members of the European Union amount to around 8.3 – 9.1 million tons per year; globally this is estimated to be around 40 million tons per year (Huisman J. et al. 2008 Review of Directive 2002/96 on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Bonn: United Nations University, 2007). See also our manual for more information on e-waste.
The results of this ranking show that while some improvements are being made, in general scores have unfortunately dropped. Most points are being scored regarding questions about climate protection measures in general, and the use of renewable energy specifically. A total of 16 out of the 23 website brands report on policy measures to minimize, reduce, or compensate greenhouse gas emissions, thereby representing the relatively as well as absolutely best scored assessment element. Another 8 of those have actually disclosed the annual climate footprint of their own operations and have already reduced or compensated at least 10% of these emissions in the last 5 years. 11 of the website brands have an overall Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) of their data centers of below 1.5 (for more information on PUE, see Wikipedia).
Regarding the environmental protection, none of the 23 website brands present a convincing policy for responsible disposal of e-waste – including reporting on respective annual results. Only 4 of them, being the Alphabet, Inc.’s brands Gmail, Google, Google+ and YouTube – also ranked highest in this update with a C-rating – have a policy for seeking suppliers and/or service providers that conduct their business in environmentally responsible ways and also provide examples to that. However, none of the brands present convincing reporting on an actual procurement policy for all electronics used in specific detail.
Among the group of website brands that yielded a D-rating in this update, 5 out of 7 brands, being Facebook and Instagram (both owned by Facebook, Inc.), and Bing, Skype and Outlook.com (all owned by Microsoft Corp.), publish their water use footprint and present a policy to minimize that footprint. Thereby, Microsoft Corp. also publishes clear objectives to minimize its waste materials footprint, and annually reports on the results. The remaining two D-rated brands, eBay and Marktplaats (both owned by eBay, Inc.), only scored points in the assessment elements on climate protection measures highlighted in the first paragraph of the results.
The group of website brands that was ranked with an E-rating in this update can be split up into a group of brands that scored some points and a group that scored no points at all. Within the first group, represented by Flickr, Yahoo! (both owned by Yahoo! Inc.), GMX, WEB.DE (both owned by United Internet AG) and Wikipedia, the only points were earned in having a policy to minimize, reduce or compensate greenhouse gas emissions. Yahoo! Inc. thereby also reported about its climate footprint and a reduction of more than 10% between the years 2013 and 2015. The website brands that scored no points at all are Dropbox, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Twitter, Vimeo and XING. These brands don’t give any impression yet that social and / or environmental sustainability is on their agenda.
Call to action
So what can we do? It seems that deleting our social media accounts or stopping searching the web aren’t the most realistic solutions to keep ourselves going. Yet there are options to do something. Mailing, tweeting or posting @the respective website brands in public can provoke serious reactions by their representatives. Also, some promising alternatives do exist, such as search engine Ecosia or mail provider Posteo – which seem to put sustainability at the heart of their operations. If these assumptions hold true, we would of course like to research these websites. Your donations can help us to complete this research.
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