Little Talk of Sustainability at Amazon's Big Hardware Event

Amazon’s annual hardware event on Wednesday was not unlike its product announcements from years prior: The company unveiled a dizzying number of new Echo speakers, showed off how it's improving Alexa through sophisticated speech technology, and even revealed a couple of skunkworks projects—smart glasses and a smart ring—at the very end of its presentation.This year’s Amazon event, however, took place against a backdrop of issues much more important than any fancy new smart speaker: Just last week, nearly 2,000 Amazon workers walked out and called for the company to reduce its carbon footprint and do more to combat the climate crisis. It was an unprecedented protest for Amazon employees, and just one day beforehand, CEO Jeff Bezos had usurped the demonstration with a climate-related statement of his own, committing Amazon to reaching the goals of the Paris climate accord 10 years early and becoming carbon neutral by 2040.
Yet at the big event Wednesday, Amazon made no mention of sustainability, recyclability, or its trade-in and recycling programs for consumer electronics. It was a noteworthy omission not only because of Amazon’s own complicated impact on the environment, but because other major hardware makers, like Apple and Samsung, have made a point in recent months to include recycling and “upcycling,” as well as trade-in programs for older devices, in their own product presentations.In an impromptu interview following the event, Bezos said that Amazon is evaluating its manufacturing processes as part of its climate-related efforts, and that the company is “not looking just at our carbon footprint from manufacturing those devices, but also the carbon footprint that comes along from the usage of the device.”

The founder and CEO added that he thinks that this is “really important, because it will drive us to do the right things in terms of making devices lower-power while customers are using them. So if you take the average lifetime of the device and the average use of the device, you have to include that—at least we have to include that—in our carbon footprint.”

Green Machines

Amazon’s business, and therefore its impact on the environment, is significantly different than that of other tech behemoths like Google or Apple—companies that say their operations already run on 100 percent clean energy. The retail giant needs gas-guzzling planes and trucks to deliver packages to shoppers’ doors in as little as one hour, and Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing division, relies on significant amounts of electricity to power its server farms.

Last year, employees began pushing Amazon to do more to reduce its carbon footprint. A group of former and current workers, who were given stock as part of their compensation packages, filed a that would have forced Amazon to release a plan for how it would cope with climate change. The resolution ultimately failed , but over 8,000 employees signed a public letter supporting it.

Amazon’s hardware devices are not a core part of its business, nor are they responsible for the majority of the company’s environmental impact. Many people in the industry see products like Echo speakers—and the popular Alexa voice assistant that runs on them—as a means to a greater end. It’s a way for Amazon to create as many opportunities as possible in people’s homes, cars, and now on their bodies to make voice queries; these produce useful data on how customers shop, eat, sleep, and enjoy media.
“Probably the biggest difference between Apple and Samsung is that their ‘hardware’ product is Alexa, not the hardware,” says Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at the market intelligence firm Creative Strategies. “When they think about hardware, they think about how many people they can reach, how many use cases they can bring to you, and how they can cement your relationship with Alexa.”