Note to Google: Sustainable Products Involve More than Green Energy

Google's Pixel Buds

Google says that you shouldn’t feel bad about buying their latest hardware products. The company has “developed sustainable solutions to mass production,” and has “the ability and the responsibility to create systemic change,” Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh said Wednesday.

At the same time, Google was proud of the design of their disposable headphones, Pixel Buds, made with “sub-millimeter construction,” resembling “intricate origami.” And the controllers for their cloud-based gaming service, Stadia, which have no visible screws.

In other words, Google’s public sustainability effort involves spending money, which they have a lot of, to run factories with clean energy and buy post-consumer plastic. What comes out of the factory is an intricate, seamless device that’s your problem to fix or responsibly dispose of.

Don’t get us wrong, renewable energy is good. Google says it’s investing $150 million into renewable energy for “key manufacturing regions.” With buy-in from partners, Google says that should cover the energy used to manufacture its consumer hardware.

Google's Nest Wifi Hubs

But it also takes energy to disassemble, shred, and separate the batteries and circuit boards embedded in the Pixel Buds, Stadia controllers, and Nest devices unveiled Wednesday. It will also require precious and rare earth minerals to make their batteries and boards, and space in landfills to end them. It’s just odd to hear Rick Osterloh, head of Google’s consumer hardware, say that “all these devices are responsibly and thoughtfully designed,” while not mentioning anything about whether you can fix, upgrade, or recycle these products.

The latest Nest Mini has a fabric cover made entirely from recycled plastic bottles; this is good. The external plastic is 35% post-consumer plastic, and all Nest products use some recycled plastic; that’s great. Google is also offsetting 100% of the carbon generated by shipping its customer products, and this is an interesting step forward. But recycling is a last-resort effort, not a solution to the ever-expanding gadget economy.

There was a glimmer of hope for some real talk near the middle of Google’s product announcement, when Ivy Ross, head of design for Google hardware, sat down in a chair on the stage, lending a serious tone to the affair. “When you look at how these things are made today,” Ross said, “it just doesn’t make sense.” Google, Ross added, is “truly looking at sustainability from every angle.” One way was “reducing the amount of hardware you need to buy in the first place.”

Google's Stadia controller

What this segued into was not a discussion about our country’s obsession with conspicuous upgrades, or hardware longevity, but Stadia. All one has to buy with Stadia was a (seemingly hard-to-repair) single-use controller and a Chromecast Ultra from Google. Assuming Stadia was a hit, gamers could move the hardware from their living rooms to Google’s server farms. The controller, Ross said, was so thoughtfully designed. 

At least we can see actual screws on the new Pixelbook.