Having been released in October 28, 2021, the Pixel 6 has quickly become one of the top Android phones released this year. Since my current phone of 3 years has started malfunctioning and slowing down, I was in the market for a new phone and the Pixel 6 was an intriguing option. However, I didn’t just want any phone with a good camera and the latest specs, I also wanted a more sustainable option. I wanted a phone that wasn’t continuously damaging the planet, and I wanted it to last me years; a phone that I could cherish for a while without having to think about replacing it within the next 2-3 years because it starts slowing down or the software stops updating. Naturally, with the Pixel 6 having recently been released, it was one of the main options I considered, so after doing a little pros and cons list, I decided to do a deeper dive into the sustainability aspect of the device to help with my assessment.
All things considered however, the Pixel is not half bad. All current models of the Pixel phone starting with the Pixel 3 and most recently the Pixel 6, have achieved an EPEAT Gold certification (the highest tier out of three: the device meets all required criteria from the IEEE 1680 family of ‘green electronics’ standards plus at least 75% of the optional criteria). The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is a ranking system that is managed and operated by staff contracted from the Green Electronics Council (a non-profit organization founded in 2005 to inspire and catalyze environmental leadership throughout the lifecycle of electronic technologies) that helps purchasers evaluate and compare devices based on their environmental attributes.
Google has also stated that the Pixel 6 will receive regular security updates to the Pixel 6 for a total of 5 years (until October 2026) and 3 years (until October 2024) of the major Android OS updates. This is great as many mid-range phones usually only offer around 3 years of security updates, so rest assured that the Pixel 6 won’t become obsolete for at least a good 5 years! As long as they’re routinely getting patched up on a security level, most smartphones are good far past their final OS update.
Perhaps more sustainable alternatives include refurbished phones, second-hand phones. However, one of the main problems is that many of these phones do not continue updating after just 2-3 years, and especially with refurbished phones, they are generally older models that don’t come with as many warranties and updates for long, so is it really worth it? I personally would prefer to get a newer phone that will last me longer and has guarantees for the first few months/years so that it will last me as long as possible and I can keep fixing it at a more affordable cost.
The Pixel 6 can be broken down into the following components/materials: steel, glass, plastic, aluminium, the lithium-ion battery, the display, electronics and other materials, a total of 207g of material. One of their highlights from the raw material stage is that 100% of the aluminium in the housing is made from recycled content, this is great because recycled aluminium uses 95% less energy than producing virgin aluminium from raw materials, saving 97% of GHG emissions produced in the primary production process. Google’s philosophy for material use in their Product Environmental Report is to focus on a light and compact design, minimizing the size and weight so that the materials are used more efficiently, thereby reducing the energy consumed during production and shipping as well as minimizing the amount of packaging.
Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are standard in laptops and smartphones and the Pixel 6 is no exception to this. However, lithium-ion technology is known to have downsides - for people and the planet. Extracting the raw materials, mainly lithium and cobalt, requires large quantities of energy and water. Moreover, the work takes place in mines where workers - including children as young as seven often face unsafe conditions. Furthermore, lithium-ion batteries are notorious for degrading over time - something that you’ll have noticed with your battery not lasting as long from a single charge after using it for a year or more.
Some highlights also include:
The packaging for the Pixel 6 uses 98% paper and fiber-based materials. The greyboard used in the box base and lid is made with 100% recycled content, and the compact-ness of the design allows more devices to be transported in a single shipping container. Google has also set a goal to make their product packaging 100% plastic-free and 100% recyclable by 2025.
Regarding the design of the phone, it is not the most sustainable. Like many other phones today, the Pixel’s sleek, unibody construction requires users to rely mostly on external services to maintain and repair the device. In contrast, many phones in the past were designed to be practical, to have modular components like user-replaceable batteries that allowed phones to last a very long time as a result of how easily repairable they were; if a component broke, it could be easily replaced and troubleshooting the hardware was much simpler. In my opinion, I think it would be great if larger tech companies were able to explore these options and prioritize phones that last longer rather than trying to profit off the business model that relies on the planned obsolescence of phones breaking down or going out of trend every few years.
The good news is that there are tech companies with sustainability at its core, emerging and becoming increasingly popular. An example of the ‘sustainable phone’ is Fairphone - a phone company that integrates circularity into the inherent design of the phone, the system and its raw materials. Their focus is on creating products that last and they too, follow the more modular user-repairable approach to the design of the phone. If sustainability is a core value to you, I would definitely recommend checking out Fairphone as it seems to be one of the most (if not most) sustainable options currently on the market.
When it comes to transparency, I must say it was impressive how easy it was to find product materials information. Since 2018, Google has committed to publishing product environmental reports for all their flagship products to help people understand the sustainability attributes of their products, with each report consisting of the devices’s environmental impact in areas such as material composition, life cycle GHG emissions, and energy efficiency.
Since swapping 100% recycled aluminium for the back housing enclosure in the Pixel 5, it has lowered the carbon footprint of manufacturing the enclosure by 35% compared with using mined aluminium. Moreover, as the range of materials have been kept very limited to about 10, it has significantly made the manufacturing process much less energy intensive as less energy is required to process and mine new materials.
Pixel phones are manufactured by HTC in Taiwan. Considering that most of the Pixel’s demographic is in the US and Europe, the carbon footprint from transportation of the products would be much higher seeing that it would have to be imported from overseas.
By 2030, Google aims to enable 5 gigawatts of new carbon-free energy across their key manufacturing regions through investment. This is equivalent to taking more than 1 million cars off the road each year, and it will create 8,000 clean energy jobs. Also in 2020, Google set the goal of achieving UL 2799 Zero Waste to Landfill certification at all final assembly manufacturing sites by 2022.
Despite how detailed and comprehensive their sustainability reports and blogs seem to be, I found it disappointing how little information I could find on how and where the products were made. It is highly unlikely that a large company like Google ‘accidentally’ leaves out information like this, leaving the information out was clearly a choice, which flags a cause for concern for what they are hiding from consumers so as to not taint their image of a ‘sustainable’ company.
Google has been carbon neutral since 2007, and has the bold goal of being carbon free by 2030. This means running their data centers and campuses on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030. Google are the first major company to set a challenging goal like this, making them a great benchmark for the level of goals other companies should be committing to, especially now where more than ever, sustainability needs to be at the heart of every single company. Google has made it clear that sustainability has been a core value for them since being founded by Larry and Sergey two decades ago.
To achieve carbon neutrality for shipping, Google has a two-step approach: The first step is carbon reduction. Their goal is to work with shipping partners to reduce shipping emissions. They achieved a 33% reduction in total transportation emissions per unit for Google hardware products from 2017 to 2019. For the emissions that remain, their second step is purchasing high-quality carbon offsets. As of October 2019, shipments of Made by Google products to and from direct customers are carbon neutral.
Despite being carbon neutral, it does not negate the fact it still allows Google to emit carbon. A large part of Google’s method to achieve carbon neutrality is through carbon offsets, which I personally believe shouldn’t be the core focus. The big problem with offsets isn’t that what they offer is bad, it is that they don’t actually cancel out (or offset) the emissions to which they are linked. Unlike net-zero, which is a far more demanding standard that has become the global benchmark for decarbonisation, carbon neutrality allows companies to continue emitting more CO2 than they remove from the atmosphere.
According to Greenpeace UK, offsetting projects simply don’t deliver what we need - a reduction in the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. Instead they’re a distraction from the real solutions to climate change. As a result, offsetting allows companies like Google to continue with their unsustainable behavior while shifting their responsibility for the climate onto the consumer. This approach can often be a way of greenwashing as the sound of being ‘carbon neutral since 2007’ tells a nice story.
Google’s white paper outlining their carbon offsets states that since 2007, Google has "partnered with more than 40 carbon offset projects to offset more than 20 million CO2 emissions". This means that they have emitted an equivalent amount – 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – over the same period. It is clear that it would be much better if Google focused more on designing their systems and products to be sustainable from the source, rather than releasing more carbon emissions and purchasing renewable energy or planting trees to make up for it. However, Google has taken a step in the right direction and recently signed up to the United Nations’ Race to Zero campaign, which helps companies align their strategies with the Paris goals and achieve net-zero emissions.
Although there are quite a few issues and sectors in which they can improve their approach to sustainability, it is clear that Google as whole has had many positive impacts on the environment, heck, without it I wouldn’t even be writing this review on the internet! An example of one of the ways they have positively impacted the environment is starting today in the U.S., and in Europe 2022, Google Maps will let you choose the most fuel-efficient route if it isn’t already the fastest one (as someone who lives in Europe and is a big fan of Google Maps, I am really excited for this feature!). They estimate this could save over one million tonnes of carbon emissions per year by reducing fuel consumption (especially by cutting down on travelling by car as it is one of the most carbon-intensive choices people make on a daily basis).
In regards to social justice initiatives, Google is committed to upholding the human rights of workers and treating them with dignity and respect. This applies to all workers, including temporary, migrant, student, contract, direct employee and any other type of worker. They have a very comprehensive list of standards that all suppliers are required to uphold, including issues such as combatting modern slavery, child labour, wages, discrimination, etc.
Google also strive to enable healthy spaces and places that enhance the well-being of Googlers, their communities, and the natural environment. This includes taking a science- and community-driven approach to managing land use on their campuses, aiming to positively impact the places by designing their offices with local ecology and landscape resilience in mind. They also have industry-leading green building certifications such as LEED and the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a standard administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). In addition to receiving a LEED Platinum rating, their London office at 6 Pancras Square was the first building project in Europe to be fully certified by ILFI as well as the first in the world to receive ILFI Zero Carbon Certification, demonstrating that the building was designed, constructed, and operates with a net-zero carbon impact.