Streaming Services

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental records of 15 streaming services providers.

We give our Best Buy recommendations, reflect on changing viewer habits, advertising and conflict minerals.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for before you watch online:

  • Does it score an Ethical Consumer best rating for its conflict minerals policy? Most of the companies in this sector also produce electronic devices so look out for those that score well for their policy on conflict minerals.

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What not to buy

What to avoid before watching TV online:

  • Is it owned by Amazon? Amazon owns the Prime video on demand service. We have been spearheading a boycott of Amazon's goods and services. The company's poor tax record and many workers' rights abuses are just the tip of a very unpleasant iceberg.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

This product guide rates the ethical practices of a number of streaming services. It explores the environmental impact of streaming, consumer advertising and the possible implications of this new era of television. It also investigates how to avoid Amazon and why it might be even harder than you think.

Changing viewing habits

The way we view TV has changed. Streaming services, or video on demand, has become increasingly popular, challenging the traditional model of scheduled broadcasting. The number of subscribers to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime has recently overtaken those of paid TV services such as BT or Virgin Media.

Ofcom reported that “Netflix, Amazon and Sky’s Now TV hit 15.4 million at the end of the first quarter this year. At the same time, the number of subscribers to pay-TV packages reached 15.1 million”.
Despite Amazon’s secrecy surrounding the size of its audience, Reuters Magazine managed to calculate the figure to be around 26 million. This is around half of the number of subscribers to Netflix. UK TV channels are also competing in this space and offer streaming services and catch up services as well as traditional broadcasting.

What’s on offer?

  • Subscriptions (TV and film) – BBC iPlayer (through TV licence), Amazon Prime, Netflix, Now TV.
  • Subscriptions (just film) – BFI Player, Flix Premiere, Mubi.
  • Pay per view/rentals (TV and Film) – Apple iTunes, BFI Player, Google Play, Play Station Video, Rakuten, YouTube Premium.
  • Free (TV and Film) – All 4, BFI Player, ITV Hub
     

Data Centres

As video on demand has become the go-to way to watch TV and film, the amount of internet traffic taken up by streaming services has dramatically increased. Climate News Network stated, in 2017, that “Video streaming to internet-enabled TVs, game consoles and mobile devices already accounts for more than 60% of all data traffic – and the latest forecasts suggest this will rise to more than 80% by 2020”. Netflix, alone, has been reported to account for over 30% of internet traffic in the US and 20% worldwide.

So what impact does all this have on climate change?

The real issue is with data centres. Data centres are the large collections of computer servers required for companies to store, process or distribute large amounts of data. They require a huge amount of energy to operate. Some have predicted that data centres could account for 13% of global energy demand by 2030.5 If companies do not commit to powering these centres using renewable sources of energy, then this could significantly drive up demand for fossil fuels.

Greenpeace’s 2017 Clicking Clean report annually evaluates the environmental performance of tech companies and puts pressure on them to use renewables.

Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean rating

  Energy Transparency   Renewable Energy Commitment and Sitting Policy   Energy Efficiency & Mitigation   Renewable Procurement   Advocacy 
Apple (A)  A A A A B
Google (A)  B A A A A
Amazon (C)  F D C C B
Netflix (D) F F C D F

In 2015, Netflix made the outrageous claim that watching content on their platform was more energy efficient than breathing. However, the company did not score well in the latest Greenpeace Clicking Clean report which stated “Netflix’s misleading attempt to equate human emissions of CO2 from breathing as somehow equivalent to its energy intensive operations is not reflective of an innovative IT company and has more in common with previous attempts by the fossil fuel industry to shift responsibility for climate change. The reality is that Netflix’s rapid growth is increasing demand for coal and other dirty sources of energy that are a threat to human health and the climate”.

Netflix states that it is focused on efficiency which is, in part, related to the switch from traditional data centre models to cloud computing.

With the old data centre model, a company would create or acquire a data centre which they would have to run at the capacity needed to meet the highest point of demand at all times even if demand was actually highly variable. When a company signs up to a cloud computing service it provides a lot more flexibility as it can pay just for the resources (data, storage, etc.) it uses. Cloud computing has not replaced the existence of data centres themselves, just the way in which companies access and use them. In theory, having one cloud computing service serving the data needs of multiple companies instead of each running their own data centres should be more efficient over all.

However, a number of the companies on our table – Netflix, Disney, More 4, ITV, Apple, Sky’s Now TV and Amazon Prime – all access at least some cloud computing services from one company in particular – Amazon Web Services (AWS), which, as the name suggests, is owned by Amazon. Over the last few years, Greenpeace has been critical of AWS’s lack of transparency when it comes to the energy used in its data centres. Greenpeace’s Gary Cook stated “Amazon continues to talk a good game on renewables but is keeping its customers in the dark on its energy decisions. This is concerning”. Greenpeace says it is particularly concerned by the fact that Amazon is building many of its new data centres in states like Virginia, which are largely powered by coal. While Greenpeace has managed to collect data from Amazon regarding the types of energy used, the organisation strongly criticises AWS for its continued failure to divulge the amount of energy it is using to both the public and its clients. Netflix is bottom of the table below.

Fortunately, the Clicking Clean report has seen some success with pushing other companies – such as Apple and Google – towards 100% renewable powered data centres.

What energy are the companies using to power their data centres? 

  Clean Energy   Natural Gas   Coal   Nuclear 
Apple  83% 4% 5% 5%
Google  56% 14% 15% 10%
Amazon  17% 24% 30% 26%
Netflix  17% 24% 30% 26%

Options for viewers

Some brands offer the option to pay to download video instead of streaming. In terms of the environmental impact there is no real difference between downloading or streaming video. However, if you are going to watch a video more than once then it is obviously better to download it rather than repeatedly stream it. Having to purchase each video individually may also help curb the temptation to ‘binge watch’ everything available, resulting in less data used and more time for other activities!

Table highlights

If you favour British film, art-house cinema or “experimental works [that] attempt to challenge power structures through a sensory approach” then you are in luck! BFI Player, Flix Premiere and Mubi come out near the top of our table. All three platforms show a range of films that aren’t often widely available.

Conflict Minerals

Five of the companies on the table also manufacture technology products which means they were rated for their policies on conflict minerals. Of the companies rated, Apple, Google and Sony received our best rating. Rakuten and Amazon received our worst rating and were marked down under Habitats and Resources and Human Rights.

Tax Avoidance

A large majority of the companies on our score table received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies. Sky received a middle rating, although 21st Century Fox which owns part of Sky received a worst rating. Only Channel 4, BFI, Flix Premiere and Mubi received our best rating. A number of companies have also been specifically criticised for avoiding tax. These included Apple, Netflix, Google and, of course, Amazon.

Pollution and Toxics

A number of the companies on our table also received pollution and toxic ratings for working in clothing or electronics. These were Disney, Google, Apple, Amazon, Rakuten and Sony. Apple and Sony received our best rating whilst the remaining four received our worst rating.
 

Advertising

Advertising used to be a common part of TV viewing. One of the major attractions of subscription-based TV viewing is that your shows are not constantly being interrupted by advertising.
Some companies such as More 4 and ITV hub are still largely funded by adverts, as they offer a free service. 

Sadly, this advertising often helps drive demand for products which can be damaging to people or the planet. For example, ITV was criticised for its scheduling of advertising during the popular show Love Island. The NHS chief said that its decision to show adverts for diet pills and plastic surgery was “playing into a set of pressures around body image that are showing up as a burden on other services”. However, just because you are not sitting through ad-breaks does not mean that products are not being advertised. 

According to CNBC, most of Amazon Prime’s shows and 74% of Netflix’s contain product placements. This is where companies pay to have their products appear in the show. For example, Netflix approached KFC with an opportunity to appear in the highly successful show, Stranger Things.

Amazon Prime can actually be seen as a form of marketing in itself. Customers of Amazon Prime also get free and faster delivery when they purchase Amazon products. In effect Amazon is marketing itself by creating its own TV channel.

The future of television online

As seemingly everything is starting to move online, we are increasingly being faced with the consequences of this. Television and video is no exception. As well as the data we actually input ourselves, moving more of our activities online also means that it is becoming far easier for companies to collect information about behaviour.

Video-on-demand services utilise algorithms to monitor subscribers’ viewing behaviour and use this information to predict what they might like to watch, making browsing content easier for customers.
Netflix also uses this information to advertise content –  meaning that the poster art for any given show appears differently to different users depending on which aspects of the show Netflix’s algorithms suggest will make you most likely to start watching.

Netflix is already dominating the market and has caused a stir among competitors who are scrambling to catch up. This has put Netflix in a very powerful position. As an article in The Economist puts it, they are the first “global television giant”.

Cultural offerings can also be just as influential as ‘news’. We have seen recently, with the scandals surrounding Facebook, how access to behavioural data can be used in more sinister ways.

In 2006, Netflix ran a $1 million prize for anyone who could come up with a better method for predicting what users would like. The winning model was the one later used by Cambridge Analytica.
BBC News recently uncovered a website through which people could search for data stored on AWS servers, including sensitive data that certainly was not intended to be in the public domain. The website, created by hackers, trawled through AWS servers for exposed data and then made it easily accessible through a search engine format. Security specialist, Kevin Beaumont, told the BBC that “The search engine is the first easy-to-access way of looking inside... companies are losing control of their data in the cloud”. The site went down ‘for maintenance’ shortly after but it demonstrates that the tech companies we are entrusting with this information are not always that well equipped to keep it safe. 

While data protection doesn’t always sound like the most exciting topic, it can be seen as directly linked to our human rights. As RightsInfo states, “data protection laws should take into account people’s right to a private life, which is protected by Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention”. Amnesty International has started researching and ranking companies in relation to data protection and personal information and content.18 While its initial report focused on messenger services, so did not cover the companies in our table, we hope to see it expand this kind of research in the future.

Not-for-profit companies

The BBC, Channel 4 and BFI all received positive Company Ethos marks for operating with a not-for-profit structure. The BBC and Channel 4 state on their websites that all profits will go back into their operations and productions.

The BFI has a number of funds to help support the UK creative industry. The organisation is under Royal Charter “to encourage the development of the arts of film, television and the moving image throughout Our United Kingdom, to promote their use as a record of contemporary life and manners, to promote education about film, television and the moving image generally, and their impact on society, to promote access to and appreciation of the widest possible range of British and world cinema and to establish, care for and develop collections reflecting the moving image history and heritage of Our United Kingdom”.

Company Profile

The Walt Disney Company operates Disney Life, a streaming service comprised purely of Disney films. The company also runs has an extensive retail operation selling toys and clothing which sees it lose marks for its policies on PVC and cotton sourcing. It also had to cease its relationship with a supplier factory in China after it was criticised for working conditions. The Walt Disney Company is a member of a number of lobby groups and it was among a number of companies urged to quit the US Chamber of Commerce over its attitude towards climate change. Disney bought the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox including film and TV studios.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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