Corporate sustainability review: Google

An illustration of a green globe encompassed by green skyscrapers with a towering hoops with vines at center.

Like many large corporations, Google has made numerous claims about their environmental sustainability and mitigation efforts. (geralt/Pixabay)

As access to technology broadens, Google and its many tools have come to the forefront of our everyday technology use.

Because of this broad influence, Google is considered a global megacorporation, as well as an internet monopoly. Amazon and Johnson & Johnson are other examples of contemporary megacorporations. The concept, while mostly used in science fiction stories, originated in the 1600s with global trading companies such as the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company. In many ways these conglomerates have become untouchable, they have the power and resources to rise above liability. However in recent years the concepts of corporate responsibility and stakeholder theory have prevailed, forcing companies to be accountable to the public, in addition to shareholders. The influence of the public has implored these corporations to confront and resolve issues such as human rights violations and environmental damage.

The environmental community has learned to be wary of initiatives from large corporations. We’ve been burned before by companies like Volkswagen and Exxon. Like many large corporations, Google has made numerous claims about their environmental sustainability and mitigation efforts. In order to determine the validity of these claims, I interviewed a current Google employee about this topic, as well as conducting my own research.

Podcast Transcript:

Lily John  0:05  

I'm Planet Forward correspondent Lily John, and recently I've taken interest in the issue of Corporate Social Responsibility, specifically at Google. The company is ostensibly environmentally conscious, but I wanted to take a more critical look at these claims.

As you listen, please keep in mind that I'm no expert in this field, and this is by no means an exhaustive evaluation. I should also mention that my stepmom, who I'll be interviewing later in this podcast, has been a Google employee for almost four years. She has enjoyed her time there, but found elements of the company's practices to be in conflict with our family's strong environmental values. 

Today, we'll be taking a deeper dive into the world of corporate sustainability by way of my research and an interview with a current Google employee. To begin, let's review Google's environmental accomplishments and sustainability goals. Their website states, “by organizing information about our planet and making it actionable through technology, we help people make even more positive impact, together.” Environmentalism has long been a core value at Google. They were the first company to become carbon neutral in 2007, and the first to match all energy use with renewable energy in 2017. This is accomplished through carbon offsets, or investments in carbon sequestration, which help eliminate the company's carbon legacy. Their next moonshot is using 100% carbon free energy in data centers and campuses by 2030. The company has also committed to adopting a circular economy model for its physical products. This means reusing and repurposing products to eliminate waste from their supply chain. Google has also committed to being water positive. That is putting more water into the environment than they import for facilities. This is done by restoring and protecting water sources. Another more recent aspect of Google sustainability initiative is providing tools that encourage individual action. For example, when doing a Google search for flights, there will be information about the rate of carbon emissions to inform the consumer of the less impactful option. 

As part of my research, I conducted an interview with my stepmom, Erin Hoffman-John, who is a current Google employee.

Hi Erin, I'm going to have you begin by introducing yourself and telling us what you've done in your time at Google.

Erin Hoffman-John  2:44  

Hi, my name is Erin Hoffman-John, and I'm a senior staff interaction designer for Google working in Google research now. I previously joined Google in 2017. Worked on Google Stadia.

Lily John  2:54  

Okay, great. Thank you. I have been doing research about sustainability at Google. There is a fair amount of information of course from the company. They're pretty transparent with sustainability reports, as well as criticism and commentary from outside parties. What is your general take on sustainability at Google?

Erin Hoffman-John  3:19  

You know, because I come from video games, I don't have a whole lot to compare it to. So for me, Google's commitment to sustainability seems really remarkable.

Lily John  3:26  

Are you aware of any criticisms about sustainability from within the company?

Erin Hoffman-John  3:32  

It's a huge company. And there's lots of people with many different perspectives. People pay attention to the external critiques that we hear. And there's a lot of conversation about the impact of big tech on the environment. And I think it's, it's a really tough ethical conversation about "Wow much is tech improving our ability to solve problems?" versus "How much is it creating new environmental problems?" There are definitely regular updates on, "Here's how our sustainability policies are evolving" that get, I think, quite a lot of attention. I certainly pay close attention to them.

Lily John  4:06  

And do you expect that other companies will follow Google's example? Because I know in Silicon Valley, Google is pretty on top of their game in comparison with other companies tn terms of sustainability. Do you see that spreading?

Erin Hoffman-John  4:22  

I would hope so I think to some extent it has because Google is so large, it has a lot of advantages that it can push in that domain. And a lot of companies in Silicon Valley are very small, very scrappy, they're not really able to do those things. So I think, especially for many rising tech companies, it's a question of what services can Google provide to take on some of that burden?

Lily John  4:46 

What would you say is the most promising aspect of the sustainability initiative at Google?

Erin Hoffman-John  4:54  

I think that there were milestones like the 100%, clean energy goals, and the most ambitious of which is definitely the carbon free by 2030, which is, I think, a pretty remarkable statement that speaks to the urgency that people feel for how quickly we need to solve these problems, if we can. I think that the design of some of the new buildings and the way that Google was using its sort of real estate footprint to innovate on sustainable technologies, like the Dragonscale Solar, is really exciting. And I'm hoping that that also spreads.

Lily John  5:34  

From your perspective, not working in the sustainability department, what are Google employees' attitudes about sustainability? And how much involvement is there?

Erin Hoffman-John  5:46  

Yeah, I think there's a wide range. Clearly, there are people that are especially passionate about sustainability, even beyond the ones that are just working in that part of the organization, and are constantly asking questions. Can we do this? Can we reduce waste in the offices? And all of that kind of thing. I do think in general, although it's a wide range, I hear a lot of concern. I have certainly never heard anybody say it's not a big deal. And so I think, as it is, in the general population, there are people who feel like they don't know what to do, and they don't know what can be done, but they certainly believe that it's important and want to do what they can. People who work at Google are very passionate. It's a value of the company to challenge the status quo. And sometimes that status quo is the people who run the company so challenging leadership, to work harder and go further.

Lily John  6:35 

Now that we've gotten the inside scoop, let's move on to criticisms mounted from outside the company. As we all should know, by now, information presented to the public is not always accurate and trustworthy. When companies reach a certain size and value, they become somewhat immune to scrutiny and punishment, thanks to the resources available to protect their image. 

One of the criticisms of Google's sustainability claims is their relationship with Total oil, one of the world's largest oil companies. In this partnership, Google provides AI software that interprets subsurface graphs and allows for the most effective extraction process, which has brought profits for the company. Fortunately, Google has recently committed to sever this partnership and revoke the use of their tools for the sake of the environment. 

Another criticism concerns the Google Pixel Four, one of their smartphones released in 2019. This phone includes recycled materials but cannot actually be fully reused, thus removing it from the circular economy model as it creates waste. And like most smartphones, these days, the Pixel is replaced by a better model each year, thus encouraging planned obsolescence. 

Google data centers also use incredible amounts of energy. Surprisingly, the cloud doesn't actually exist in the sky, but in Google's 23 massive data centers across the globe, a great deal of the energy required for these data centers has transitioned to renewable sources. However, there is still some reliance on fossil fuels. The company maintains its net zero carbon emission status by purchasing carbon offset credits. These credits count as compensation for pollution released by the company's activities. So essentially, they are making up for their greenhouse gas emissions but not actually eliminating them. But the question remains, what environmental impacts is Google or any other company for that matter responsible for fixing or remediating and to what extent? 

One of the biggest roadblocks to the much needed action on climate change is a lack of accountability and responsibility. All in all, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by my findings. I expected to come across cover ups of environmental scandal or misrepresentation of company efforts as has become the status quo for large corporations. By my amateur evaluation, it seems that Google has put a significant amount of resources towards environmental action, which will likely inspire competitors to do the same. 

That being said Google is not without its faults and shortcomings in environmental issues. It is essential that corporations are held accountable for the damage they're doing to the environment. It is becoming increasingly evident that governments cannot be relied upon to make the changes necessary to prevent catastrophic warming and other environmental disasters. I believe that our best and perhaps only option is to target the polluters themselves. They may have the government in their pocket, but not all of us.

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Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Image by geralt via Pixabay.

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