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The Console Wars: A Sustainability Perspective

By April 22, 2024Author's Opinions, Food for thought14 min read

When I was young, I loved playing Pokemon. I started out playing on the Nintendo DS, but then the Nintendo DSi came out, and it was so much better. So, eventually, I got a Nintendo DSi, and continued to play Pokemon. 

But then the Nintendo 3DS came out, and I could no longer get the newest Pokemon games. It took me a while, but I eventually caved and bought myself a Nintendo 3DS with the money I had saved up so I could once again play Pokemon.

Less than six months later, the Nintendo Switch was announced.

I didn’t understand what was behind the ever-changing models of Nintendo consoles at that age, but whether I knew it or not, I was a victim of the console wars.

The term “console wars” has been used to describe multiple generations of theoretically winner-take-all battles between different game console companies. Currently, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are the players, focused on dominating the gaming console sphere.

These wars are mainly driven by the promise of profits, but the competition comes down to two factors: power and exclusivity. You need your console to always be the strongest, best, and have the best games for your console only.

Lately, there have been arguments as to who is winning the current console war and whether it’s even still going on, but I wanted to look at a different angle: the console war’s impact.

More specifically, its sustainability impact.

For our purposes, sustainability is not just environmental impact. While that’s important, the environment is not the only factor in sustainability. The proper scope of sustainability is social, economic, and environmental.

So, what has been the impact of the console wars across all aspects of sustainability?

FROM THE WORDS OF THE COMPANIES

What is a better place to look at the sustainability of the console wars than from the companies themselves? Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all produce sustainability reports, which have become a larger staple of companies in recent years.

One detail that will be important throughout this section, though, is to understand the context behind the numbers. Assumptions must be made when measuring many variables used in sustainability reports because it is far too difficult to accurately measure the variables directly. These assumptions may not always be based in reality, either, which could lead to the reported number being either too low or too high.

Nintendo

Even at a glance, it is obvious that Nintendo is, at the very least, vocal about lessening its impact on the environment. The company has a webpage dedicated to its corporate social responsibility (CSR) report, which is full of initiatives that hits the full scope of sustainability.

While there are too many initiatives to list here, two are especially important when looking at the sustainability impacts of the console wars. These are their recycling programs and CSR Procurement Guidelines.

The highlighted recycling programs, especially the Take Back Program used in the United States and Canada, are meant to help with the issues of waste and rare mineral extraction, which will be discussed later.

The CSR Procurement Guidelines are necessary for Nintendo to ensure that social issues such as human rights, occupational health and safety, and fair wages are addressed within manufacturing facilities. These guidelines are needed because as stated on their website, Nintendo does not own the manufacturing facilities that produce their main products.

Do not believe that everything on Nintendo’s GSR webpage can be taken at face value. A major example of this point can be seen in the environmental data that they have provided for the public.

The story begins with Scope 1 emissions. In the corporate sustainability world, greenhouse gas emissions are often broken down into 3 scopes, depending on how connected the emissions are to the company’s activities. Scope 1 emissions are often called “direct” emissions, as they are directly connected to the company’s day-to-day operations.

As is commonly done with Scope 1 emissions, Nintendo has reported the emissions in that category after carbon offsets, which are credits or initiatives that “make up for” carbon emissions. While it is not clearly indicated what the carbon offsets in this case are, such offsets often come in the form of carbon credit purchases and forest protection initiatives.

So, what’s the issue?

According to some studies, carbon offsets don’t always work the way we think they will, especially when it comes to forest protection initiatives. One study that looked at 18 forest protection projects across five countries found that only 6% of the reported offsets from such projects were valid. It is from such projects that carbon offset credits are often bought, and therefore, the validity of Nintendo’s reported Scope 1 emissions must be scrutinized.

Unfortunately, we do not have any data on what the Scope 1 emissions would be without the carbon offsets, so it can be difficult to fully understand Nintendo’s environmental impact over the years in this category.

Another issue that relates to the Scope 1 emissions issue is the lack of data going back in time. The webpage listing the environmental data only goes back to 2020 (and even then, only in some categories), so it cannot be easily seen how the modern console wars have, over time, impacted the environment from Nintendo’s angle.

It would be especially necessary to have a more detailed record of Scope 3 emissions, as these most indirect emissions would be connected to transporting products to retail, going to conferences to market and sell products, and emissions related to products purchased by Nintendo.

Now when moving away from Nintendo, it is important to remember that while the company is almost directly connected to the video game industry, and therefore the console war, both Sony and Microsoft stretch their influence far beyond video games. Therefore, these two companies must be looked at slightly differently.

Sony

You read that correctly. Sony is not planning for net-zero emissions by 2050, but to have no environmental impact at all.

The issues that can be seen through the data, though, are a step back from Sony’s publicized environmental plan. This plan, Road to Zero, states that Sony plans to have zero environmental footprint by 2050.

Of course, some aspects of Sony’s environmental footprint have improved. Scope 2 emissions have decreased, the percent generation of renewable energy has increased, and there has been some reduction in virgin oil-based plastic used in products. In addition, Sony had some of their data categories, including emissions, independently verified for 2022.

What is concerning about the data in the report is that multiple categories including Scope 1 emissions, Scope 3 emissions, and the amount of waste generated have all increased between 2020 and 2022. While it is nearly impossible at the company-wide scope to dissect the potential causes for these increases, they are a step in the wrong direction.

When looking at Sony’s 2023 Sustainability Report, the Scope 1 emissions may seem much higher than Nintendo’s Scope 1 emissions, with 230 thousand metric tons-CO2 for Sony compared to just 611 tons for Nintendo. It must be noted that 91 sites, including manufacturing facilities, are used in Sony’s data collection. As Nintendo doesn’t own their manufacturing facilities, the emissions from those sites are likely not shown in their Scope 1 emissions.

Additionally, almost every previous sustainability report from 1997 (minus 1998 and 2000) can be found. While I will mainly focus on data from 2020-2022 to remain consistent with Nintendo, this increase in data availability is beneficial to see trends in environmental impact.

Similar to Nintendo, Sony has a webpage dedicated to CSR and their CSR initiatives. On this webpage, they include 4 categories for their CSR efforts: environment, social contribution, diversity, equity, & inclusion, and accessibility.

Such an endeavor would include being net-zero in Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030, and net-zero in Scope 3 emissions by 2040. In addition, Sony would have to eliminate all virgin materials in their products and all waste generated at all of their sites.

At this time, Sony does not seem anywhere near their targets. With their launch of the PlayStation Portal Remote Player late last year, it does not seem as if Sony is slowing down when it comes to the console wars.

Microsoft

These are great steps, but as we turn to the world outside these three companies, we must ask ourselves: are these initiatives and programs enough to achieve sustainability while the console wars continue?

Xbox specifically has made sustainability updates. According to a 2022 press release, Xbox made improvements to Xbox’s Energy Saver mode and incorporated Post-Consumer Recycled resins. In addition, Xbox pledges to design all products and packing materials to be 100% recyclable in over 35 countries by 2030.

“It will not be a straight path to success, but we’re committed to improving our environmental impact in all areas of our business,” McCarthy is quoted as saying.

Dave McCarthy, Corporate Vice President of Xbox Operations, does note the difficulties of reducing environmental impact on the Xbox sustainability webpage.

One category that was especially shocking to me was how little renewable energy was produced on-site. In the 2022 fiscal year, only 236 MegaWatt-hours (MWh) of renewable energy was produced. That is small when compared to the 18,153,218 MWh of renewable energy claimed by energy credits, power purchase agreements, and green power tariff programs.

Similar to Sony, the data proves Microsoft may not be close to their target yet. Based on Microsoft’s 2022 Data Fact Sheet, emissions for all 3 scopes have increased, as has non-renewable fuel consumed for energy. The fact sheet does state that when accounting for company growth, these numbers can actually show a percent reduction, but that does not eliminate that there has been a numerical increase.

Instead, Microsoft’s overarching goal of becoming carbon negative, water positive, and zero waste by 2030 must be used when analyzing what the company, and the sub-company of Xbox, is doing to bolster sustainability.

Interestingly, the main focus on Microsoft’s sustainability webpage as of writing this article is on what Microsoft’s services can do to help other companies achieve sustainability goals. Xbox does have its own sustainability page, but there are not any specific goals that it has.

Microsoft has a similar story to Sony and not just because the company has many goods and services beyond the video game industry. As new Xbox consoles and other products have been teased, there is no better time than now to look at Microsoft’s promises and progress.

BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Why should we be worried about the sustainability of the console wars? After all, every product has environmental and social impacts, and companies in every industry have had their troubles when acting on their promises, especially environmentally-focused ones.

But, the concept of a console war is the difference. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are all in constant competition to one-up each other and make a product that’s better than the rest.

Unfortunately for sustainability, this competition has led to a constant push to create new gaming consoles, instead of making one console that can be supported for long periods of time.

Even with the efforts of these companies to be more sustainable in recent years, two issues have emerged: materials and waste.

All video game consoles need a lot of materials from plastics to rare-earth elements, which are often sourced from virgin materials.

Rare-earth elements have been a particularly tense issue, and the impacts of extracting these elements go far beyond just the environment. The Institute for Policy Studies found in a review that multiple conflicts from rare-earth element extractions, such as in Madagascar and Myanmar, have led to community health issues and human rights violations.

The 17 elements which form the rare-earth elements group are not actually as rare as their name suggests. But, these elements are needed for every electronics industry and are vital for the clean-energy transition. If steps are not taken to reduce the social impacts of rare-earth element mining, conflicts will continue, especially in emerging mining areas such as in parts of Africa.

Then there is the issue of waste, which when dealing with gaming consoles, means e-waste. E-waste is the fastest-growing type of solid waste in the world and is often directed to areas that do not have the proper infrastructure to handle it properly.

In the areas e-waste is sent to, the rare-earth elements can pose a great opportunity for people in poor communities to earn some money. As the World Health Organization notes in their e-waste fact sheet, a lack of protections for these people, especially children, has led to many people being exposed to hazardous chemicals including lead.

One major way to decrease the impacts of the e-waste issue is through recycling programs where every partis subject to official tracking, reporting, and regulation. While all three companies (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) do have recycling programs for their products, more must be done to publicize and increase the reach of these programs.

Eventually, the goal must be to create a fully circular economy with the materials for gaming consoles, which is a type of economy where all waste is brought back into the manufacturing process.

For both of these issues, solutions must be created as early as the design process. As much as every company wants to have the most powerful console with the most exclusive games, a turn toward repairability and longevity can satisfy both sustainability efforts and consumers who want  to be able to repair their belongings more than ever before.

CONCLUSIONS

Now that we’ve looked at the state of sustainability when it comes to the console wars, we must ask: what do we focus on? Is it better to celebrate the current sustainability achievements of these companies, or is it best to pressure them to go further, faster?

And, is there a better way?

Some may say gaming computers are a better way, as one could argue you could get more use out of a computer which you use for gaming and other activities compared to consoles which are often only used for gaming. Computers are another electronic device, however, and many of the same issues of waste and materials are present.

I believe that we must always strive for more sustainable options and that sustainability, in all three aspects, must be considered in every decision a company makes.

This Earth Day, let’s not forget the responsibility companies have to improve their sustainability at every level and not let their promotion of what they have done detract from the progress they still need to make.