Jolly green tech giants

Apple, Facebook and Google get ‘A’ grades from Greenpeace for advancing the cause of renewable energy. The way they promote their renewable credentials online deserves top marks too, Jason Sumner says.
 

Earlier this month, Greenpeace, the environmental campaigning organization, came out with a report giving ‘A’ grades to Apple, Facebook and Google for leading the way to a ‘green internet’, powered by 100 per cent renewable energy.

According to the report, Clicking Clean: Who is winning the race to build a green internet, the technology sector – with its data centres, factories, networks and devices – will likely soon account for 12 per cent of global electricity demand and is growing fast. If the IT sector were a country, it would already be the third-highest electricity consumer in the world, behind China and the US.

Although the three California-based tech giants, Apple, Facebook and Google, all reach the A-grade threshold in the report’s Clean Energy Index, Greenpeace also assigned them individual scores. Apple has the highest, at 83 per cent. Facebook is on 67 per cent and Google on 56 per cent. Percentages were judged based on five criteria – transparency, commitment to renewable energy, mitigation, renewable procurement and public advocacy.

We decided to check in on what, if anything, the companies are doing online to promote their renewable commitments, which have so impressed Greenpeace.

As far as the report itself goes, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, tweeted a CNBC story about it on the release date, January 10th, to his 4m followers. And Facebook promoted the report in a post on its environment page on January 11th. Facebook also has a link to the 2015 Clicking Clean report among a list of external resources on its sustainability microsite, so the new one may make its way on the list in the future.

In the environmental sections of their online estates, all three companies devote considerable space to describing their work on renewables, much of it worth emulating.

Apple

‘Apple has remained among the most aggressive in the sector in its efforts to power its online platform with renewable energy,’ Greenpeace says in its report. The NGO also likes the way Apple is pushing suppliers to go green.

Apple’s ‘Environment’ section is signposted via a tiny link in the footer of Apple.com, but rewards visitors who find it with a visually striking landing page. The slogan – ‘Our planet deserves our best thinking’ – is neatly tied in with the brand, and the stem of the familiar white apple icon is coloured green.

Apple's Environment section

Apple's Environment section

Scrolling down the page, Apple’s renewables commitment is the second item: ‘Using 100 percent renewable energy is a lofty goal. In 2015, 93 percent of our energy came from renewable sources. And we’re constantly looking for ways to reach 100 percent.’

This links to a ‘Climate Change’ page, a scrolly but informative excursion through Apple’s many renewables initiatives: its carbon footprint calculations, green-friendly aluminium sourcing, supplier policies, energy-efficient products, data centres, etc. As might be expected from Apple, the layout is clean, the language clear and convincing, and data is cleverly used to reinforce the story.

Facebook

The king of social media channels, says Greenpeace, ‘was the first major internet company to commit to be 100% renewably powered and continues to play a leadership role within the sector. Showing strong transparency and a track record of its five latest data centres sited in locations that allowed them to be renewably powered.’

We looked at Facebook in depth just last month and were impressed with the strides it has made in promoting its environmental initiatives across the board. The ‘Clean & Renewable Energy’ page on its sustainability microsite, while not as detailed as Apple’s ‘Climate Change’ page, does do a good job of setting out the company’s goals:

‘In 2012, we set a goal of reaching 25% clean and renewable energy in our electricity supply mix in 2015 for all data centres – which we exceeded. In 2015, we doubled that target – and are now aiming to have at least 50% clean and renewable energy in our mix in 2018.’

There is additional detail in ‘Our Footprint’, including interesting real-time dashboards tracking ‘power usage effectiveness’ and ‘water usage effectiveness’ at Facebook’s four data centres.

Facebook Clean & Renewable Energy page

Facebook Clean & Renewable Energy page

Google

Greenpeace criticises Google on data transparency, saying it ‘still has significant room to improve in regards to transparency, however, lagging behind Apple and Facebook… in providing facility level energy demand data.’ But it does enough to get the overall ‘A’ grade: ‘Google took several significant steps forward since our last report toward a renewably powered Google Cloud,’ Greenpeace says, ‘building on its strength of advocacy and renewable procurement, but also improving its renewable energy deployment in new markets to keep pace with its rapid growth.’

The top feature on Google’s environment microsite highlights its renewables pledge: ‘100% renewable is just the beginning,’ and links through to a first-person feature by Urs Hölzle, Google’s senior vice president of technical infrastructure. ‘I’m thrilled to announce that in 2017 Google will reach 100% renewable energy for our global operations – including both data centers and offices,’ he says. ‘This is a huge milestone.’

Google Environment microsite

Google Environment microsite

The page has fewer visual bells and whistles than Apple’s or Facebook’s environmental pages, but a direct message from the executive responsible is effective. The top post on Google’s Environment blog from Dec 6th, also carries the message from Mr Hölzle. There are plenty of hyperlinks to PDF documents with an exceptional level of detail, including a 13-page white paper, ‘Achieving Our 100% Renewable Energy Purchasing Goal and Going Beyond’.

In our Index of Online Excellence, which evaluates the online communications efforts of the biggest 200 companies in the world, US tech companies have usually done well in our metric covering ‘reputation’ – or how they communicate their efforts to be good citizens. So it is not surprising to us that Apple, Facebook and Google excel at putting their case across about renewables to generalist ‘non-expert’ visitors.

Where they have not done so well in the past is in the metric covering provision for CSR ‘professionals’, which include NGOs such as Greenpeace. These organizations are interested in hard data, and that has been lacking from Apple, Facebook and Google in the past, something they share more widely with all US-based companies. But there are signs that is changing. Apple, Facebook and Google have all recently and for the first time released sustainability reports that contain detailed environmental data, of the kind CSR professionals take seriously. Other US companies, such as Ford, are also doing better in this regard.

The tech giant’s online comms on renewables still have weaknesses, but they do not have anything to do with content. They are – as ever with US tech companies – to do with navigation and fragmentation. On all three estates, it is harder than it should be to find the environment pages. And the positive stories found there are siloed, when, as the Greenpeace report attests, they deserve to be more widely shared.

- Jason Sumner