Why isn't big tech helping consumers make more informed decisions about the carbon impact of their choices?

  • The big tech companies could easily have an impact on reducing our GHG emissions by providing better information to their users about the carbon impact of their choices. For example, take Amazon. Some of you may have seen this analysis of how Amazon's push for ever faster shipping is bad for the environment:


    While the promise of fast shipping certainly is a draw for Amazon, but many consumers would be happy to choose more environmentally friendly shipping options if they were aware of the impact of their choices. Why doesn't Amazon help their users to make this choice? For example, even something as simple a putting a little leaf decorator on the shipping option with the lowest estimated carbon footprint would be better than what they currently have. For a much bigger impact (albeit one that requires a much more involved analysis) Amazon could attempt to estimate the carbon footprint of most popular products sold through them and inform consumers so they can choose more efficient alternatives.

    Similarly, Apple & Google should be estimating GHG emissions for different routing options in their maps apps and informing their users. Ideally they would also change the default behaviors to reflect environmental impacts rather than just time spent on the road. For example, a route that takes one minute less by going a much longer distance on freeways probably has a worse carbon footprint than one that takes one mine longer on local roads.

    All these companies would like us to think that they are taking climate change seriously, so their inaction on simple changes is puzzling. Now, obviously the changes I'm suggesting can't replace more critical and capital intensive changes that will eventually be necessary like electrifying delivery fleets and making sure data centers are run on entirely renewable energy. But the sort of changes I'm proposing seem pretty easy implement and may often even align with the profit motives companies themselves (e.g. the more environmentally shipping option will often be cheaper too). So why haven't they been implemented yet?

    How can we pressure big tech to get their act together? A strong social media campaign seems like it might be enough to get action, but I don't have enough social capital to pull one off by myself. Let me know if you'd like help coordinate something or have thoughts about the impact of such an effort.

  • @guyi The root causes of inaction could be coming from a few different directions.

    First, actions that might appear to align with profits may not in reality. These are companies with extensive product, UI/UX, and data science teams focused entirely on optimizing for increased revenue. They have likely A/B tested many variations of their offerings, landing on the ones that perform best. Reminding people of the environmental impact of their decisions at all could drive less sales/revenue.

    Another reason may be that big company size means that changes are slow and incremental. Good ideas like yours could take a while to propagate into the product.

    I think for true change to happen, it needs to work out economically for companies. Whether that means offering a higher price, more eco-friendly shipping option or internalizing some of the environmental cost of manufacturing emissions. These are normal people like you and I trying to keep their jobs - if that depends mostly on maximizing shareholder value, we need to consistently line up profit with positive environmental decisions.

    Social media is one way of going about it but I think it would ultimately have a narrow effect on very specific things. Positive systemic changes are likely to have a greater overall effect 🌎

  • @Eric-Vanular Are you saying you think companies can't/shouldn't inform customers about the carbon impact of their choices because that would harm shareholder value? If that's the case then I think the "positive systemic changes" we need might be a shift away from the system where shareholder value is the main variable driving economic decisions at the expense of all other interests. One way of accomplishing such a shift is by magnify the voices of two other key interests: consumers and labor. Social media may only do that is some narrow fashion, but I could definitely use some good ideas about other ways of accomplishing the same.

    However, even apart from whether we need wider systemic change, I do think some low-carbon choices align what lower-costs and thus higher margins for the companies themselves. Slower shipping is an obvious one. If this has been A/B tested by Amazon found to reduce sales significantly I think they should publish their findings on that so we can know that they have tried. In the absence of that I am inclined to believe they haven't tried.

  • @guyi Companies should definitely inform their customers about the carbon impacts of their choices. I was speculating about the reasons why they currently don't and how we can help to change that. I like your ideas and agree that big tech can do much more to help with climate change.

    My take on it is that driving shareholder value is fairly entrenched already into the fabric of society. One idea is to make use of the existing system to motivate positive environmental actions. Using social media to push for things like carbon taxes might work because they actualize the true costs of one-day shipping for example. That's the kind of systemic change I was referring to.

    There is definitely low-carbon choices that tech companies can make which would save them money. I think maybe they either haven't fully realized the opportunities or haven't been able to mobilize fast enough to take advantage of them.

  • The amount of carbon produced in the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of a product is tremendously complex. At the moment, business cares only about their bottom line. As our climate heats and millions of consumers are displaced, and thousands or millions die from heat, this equation will by necessity change.

  • It's not in their interest for people to choose slower shipping options. Amazon's ultimate goal seems to become the main platform for all commerce in the world -- they want you to buy your toilet paper on Amazon (hence their investments in Alexa). The more they get you used to getting what you want when you want it, the more hooked they make you. A delay is likely to make you want to get it yourself in a physical store.

    The culture in tech is often "Move fast and break things." They probably justify their huge environmental impact with the idea that at some point they'll use their profits to invest in electric autonomous transportation. But they're not doing it right now - just like many other tech companies that justified their agressive growth strategies by promising us world changing innovations, which never happened.

Log in to reply