Behind The Label: The Sustainability Of The Amazon Kindle

amazon kindle paperwhite

ColumnThe Amazon Kindle versus paper books: who wins when it comes to sustainability?

In just a matter of years, e-readers like the Amazon Kindle have fundamentally changed the publishing industry, replacing traditional paper books with digital downloads that can be accessed in a matter of minutes.

For many, the Kindle-versus-“real”-book debate boils down to a sense of nostalgia. For years, I refused to even entertain the idea of purchasing an e-reader, preferring instead the look, feel, and experience of reading a paper book.

But there are environmental implications to each option too. Some claim that e-readers are preferable to books, since they don’t require the plentiful amounts of paper and high costs of transport. However, the environmental cost of mining, energy use, and e-waste in the lifecycle of a Kindle shouldn’t be discounted. Add to that equation Amazon’s notorious secrecy surrounding its manufacturing practices, which makes it difficult to make any real comparisons between the two.

The first-generation Kindle debuted in November 2007 and instantly sold out, remaining out of stock for five months. Currently, the product line includes the classic Kindle ($69), Kindle Paperwhite ($119), Kindle Fire ($159), Kindle Fire HD ($199), and the 8.9” Kindle Fire HD ($269). Though the Kindle is often promoted as the world’s best-selling e-reader, Amazon hasn’t released much in the way of true sales data, preferring vague press release statements like “more than double” or “4x over last year.” TechCrunch’s MG Siegler feels comfortable saying that “sales are somewhere between zero and infinity.”

The Good

Although Amazon doesn’t release much information about the Kindle, analysts and think tanks have stepped in to give their best guesses. The most recent comprehensive study of the Kindle was produced by the Cleantech Group in 2008.

The study estimates that the Kindle generates roughly 168 kg of CO2 over a four-year lifecycle, but that carbon emissions are fully offset after the Kindle’s first year of use, assuming that the reader consumes 22.5 books annually. Using historical carbon emission data and e-reader sales projections, Cleantech estimated that e-readers purchased from 2009 to 2012 would prevent 9.9 billion kg of CO2 from being emitted over the four-year period.

Cleantech compares the emissions of a Kindle to the emissions of traditional books, which were estimated to generate up to 1,074 kg of CO2 over the same four-period. But the environmental impact of a book isn’t limited to carbon emissions. According to the report, the U.S. book and newspaper industries consumed 125 million trees and 153 billion gallons of wastewater in 2008. Waste is prevalent at the end of a book’s life too; approximately 36 percent of hardcover and 25 percent of softcover books are returned to publishers after not selling at bookstores, and they are ultimately recycled, incinerated, or sent to landfills.

amazon kindle selection

The Bad

While the data in the Cleantech report is intriguing, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that they are based on guesses rather than fact. Amazon is notoriously secretive about its business practices, particularly about the production and environmental impact of the Kindle. It has repeatedly declined requests for information from think tanks like Cleantech, publications like the New York Times, and even its own investors.

“When it comes to its own footprint, Amazon is consistently more secretive than the CIA,” said Raz Godelnik in Triple Pundit.

Although Amazon doesn’t provide public information about its manufacturers, one thing we do know is that Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer lambasted for horrible working conditions after an Apple expose last year, is one of Amazon’s main production partners. According to various reports, Foxconn is behind the second-generation Kindle Fire, the new Kindle smart phone, and other e-readers in the collection.

But where Apple was subject to consumer backlash and took immediate steps to improve working conditions along its supply chain, Amazon escaped relatively unscathed. It is not part of any working groups, nor does it provide data to organizations seeking to bring about positive change in the industry, like the Cleantech Group or the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Even a call from shareholders for greater transparency was rejected. During the company’s annual meeting in 2011, Calvert Asset Management, whose investors then held about $62 million worth of Amazon shares, called for a report describing the impact of climate change on Amazon’s business, as well as the impact of its business on climate change. “We own this company and want it to do well, so we wouldn’t want any poor performance to come from the release of a document,” Rebecca Henson, Calvert’s sustainability analyst, told the Seattle Times. “We just think it’s something that would be beneficial and could save money in the long run.”

Amazon’s board urged shareholders to vote against the measure, saying that the report would not be “an efficient use of time and resources.” The measure was ultimately rejected.

The Questionable

It’s difficult to fathom that a multi-billion dollar company like Amazon can’t find the resources to conduct an assessment of its environmental impact, particularly when you look at the efforts of its peers.

After the Foxconn expose, Apple tripled its social responsibility unit, publicly released the names of its suppliers, and joined both the Fair Labor Association and the Sustainable Trade Initiative, according to the New York Times. Other tablet competitors, like Sony and Samsung, have long published extensive social responsibility reports. Amazon, on the other hand, won’t even produce a report for its own investors.

As an environmentalist and avid reader, I want to embrace the Kindle. Surprisingly, I enjoy the feel and ease of my Paperwhite (which, full disclosure, I received from an Amazon-sponsored event). I think it’s perfect for travel and handy on the subway.

But I can’t recommend the Kindle enthusiastically until Amazon follows its peers in promoting transparency and social responsibility in its operations. Hopefully the recent firestorm around electronics transparency will convince Amazon that it’s a worthy use of time and resources.

Images: Amazon, The Cleantech Group

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.