Human Journey

Dispatches from the Consumer Electronics Show: What Does Green Mean?

greenpeace.jpgTop manufacturers of phones, televisions, computers, and gaming consoles have a ways to go before being “green,” according to a Greenpeace report discussed at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week.

Of 18 companies ranked on their reduction of toxic chemicals, recycling programs, and energy-efficiency efforts, Nokia and Sony Ericsson rise to the top, receiving around seven points on a scale of zero to ten.

Both companies have reduced the use of two of the most harmful chemicals in consumer electronics–PVC plastics and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). PVC has been identified as a carcinogen when burned, and BFRs have been linked to endocrine, or hormone system, disruption in humans.

Nokia aims to avoid the use of BFRs in 2010, as well as several other toxic compounds. The company also has nearly 5,000 collection points for dropping off used products for recycling, and is working to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing by 18 percent from 2006 levels.

Sony Ericsson products, for the most part, have been PVC- and BFR-free since last year. In terms of energy efficiency, the company stands out for making electronics that don’t waste standby power. All new charger models use 0.1 watts or less in standby mode.

Nintendo, Microsoft, and Lenovo fall to the bottom of Greenpeace’s list, with scores under three points.

While these companies have made some efforts in toxics reductions, recycling, and energy efficiency, they lag behind greening leaders in the consumer electronics industry. Nintendo’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen slightly, and Microsoft has yet to eliminate BFR from some internal parts (printed circuit boards).

Greenpeace releases its Guide to Greener Electronics on a quarterly basis. The environmental watchdog organization has seen significant progress in environmentally friendly practices among leading consumer electronics companies, said Greenpeace International Electronics Campaigner Casey Harrell during a CES press conference yesterday.

Groundtruthing

For at least the last two years, greening has been one of the underlying themes at CES–one of the biggest consumer electronics trade shows in the world, with 2,500 exhibitors, 20,000 new products, 5,000 members of the media, and 110,000 visitors.

Among the maze of flashy displays and sleek machines, you can find a few outcroppings of green, including special conference sessions on energy efficient technologies and e-waste laws, as well as a green products zone.

However, it seems the definition of “green” varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, regulator to regulator, and consultant to consultant.

After Greenpeace’s press conference, I set out to find industry-greening experts who could either refute or defend the environmental organization’s claims.

Microsoft doesn’t have an eco-product section at CES, and press representatives weren’t able to connect me to anyone who could address sustainability.

I did get an email a day later from a Microsoft spokesperson that said: “Microsoft’s commitment to environmental sustainability includes strategies to minimize the impact of our operations; using IT to improve energy efficiency; and accelerating research breakthroughs that will help scientific understanding on a global scale. We acknowledge that more work remains to achieve our sustainability goals and continue to work to improve upon our efforts.”

Samsung, which slipped in the rankings from second to seventh, had a corner of their conference display dedicated to sustainability. Placards boasted of bioplastics, energy efficiency, and toxics reductions. Large-screen interactives allowed you to tour a home filled with green electronics, and a video presentation outlined Samsung’s plan to reduce 84 million tons of CO2 from products by 2013.

But still there was no one on the conference floor, or through the press desk, who could answer more specific questions about how those reductions were going to happen–or who could address Greenpeace’s evaluation.

“You’re going to see a lot of companies talk about the green aspects of their businesses,” said Greenpeace’s Harrell. “I don’t think any company is making the commitments without intending to following through, but it doesn’t necessarily pay now to move beyond green rhetoric.”

Jeff Omelchuck, director of the Green Electronics Council echoed similar remarks in a conference session Friday: “There isn’t a lot of (green product) info out there because manufacturers don’t have a big incentive to be transparent about product lifecycle.”

Omelchuck, who was instrumental in the development of EPEAT (the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool used in conjunction with Energy Star to evaluate the sustainability of computers), said that manufacturers aren’t feeling pressure from consumers to produce green, and consumers who are interested often don’t know what questions to ask, or that there are systems like EPEAT out there.

From the consumer side, the Consumer Electronics Association, which hosts the conference, says that surveys show 57 percent of consumers indicate that environmentally friendly attributes will factor into their next consumer electronics purchase decision.

However, CEA adds, if a green product costs more, consumers tend to buy what they can afford instead.

–Tasha Eichenseher blog-headshot.jpg

Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.

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