Final Thoughts on The Future of Green Gadgets at CES 2012

© Jaymi Heimbuch

I'm back from CES and have had a weekend to recouperate digest what I saw and experienced at the event. Though, admittedly it's not just an event. It's a temperature gauge for everything in electronics, from whether or not hot trends will really take off to what new trends are just around the bend.

This year was expected to be the second largest CES event in history with only 2008 beating it by a hair. By mid-week it had well surpassed 2008 records. Over 150,000 people swarmed to the Las Vegas Convention Center, and over 3,100 businesses exhibited their products across over 1.8 million square feet of space. It was big. Really, really big.

In the years I've attended CES, this one felt different for a couple reasons -- reasons that are ultimately good for the green movement.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Doing Away with Special Zones for Green
First, the Sustainable Planet TechZone was moved out of the Convention Center altogether and over to the Venetian. At first, I was peeved about this. It seemed clear that it was yet another move to push green gadgets off to the side and make way for the big, fancy, and less sustainable devices. But after visiting this year, that frustration has subsided.

I'd asked a Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) representative why the zone was moved at all. He noted that while he wasn't completely sure of the details, he knew that CEA wanted to place the Eureka Park Techzones together -- Eureka Park being a zone set aside for start-ups to show case their new ideas. That meant rearranging some things and the Venetian was a good option for them. Also, there were only 24 exhibitors in the zone so moving it over to make room for more substantial zones in the main conference area sort of makes sense. Okay, logistics are logistics. I get that. It also solidified my opinion that the Sustainable Planet Techzone should just disappear. Here's why:

First, there are few exhibitors. Second, they revolve primarily around solar energy generation and energy efficiency via smart power strips, smart wall outlets and so on. There isn't much about the majority of devices that are exactly "sustainable" but they are greener. If they're going to be effective at creating awareness of alternative options to more earth-friendly electronics, how about getting them out of a token zone and into the appropriate tech zones where more people will actually see them?

Yes, it's lovely for greenies to have a whole zone to visit and see the designs and products sort of rounded up -- but having only 24 exhibitors out of 3,100 is actually more depressing than helpful. Instead, stumbling across something like GoalZero or Revolve in a battery or energy generation tech zone would be more exciting.

And this falls into the third reason for getting rid of the Sustainable Planet Techzone altogether: green is being integrated more and more in the booths and products of larger companies anyway. Why not integrate green as part of the CE industry, rather than as a token section?

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Green Is A Product As Well as a Mindset
I noticed that this year more so than others, companies weren't putting so much effort into highlighting their sustainability-oriented goals, initiatives and products. They weren't trying hard to reach out to press to come to the booths and talk about it. It's handled more as a given. As if it's just part of the show to see their TVs as well as their energy generation products. In fact, there were a number of really great products, systems, and software that was launched at the show that have everything to do with being energy efficient or thoughtful with the planet's resources that were not highlighted anywhere near the Sustainable Planet zone.

For instance, People Power partnered with Monster to create an app for controlling your energy use from afar -- it was launched as something for everyone, not just the energy aware. Motorola launched a new product and app for the connected home, and I hadn't heard word of it until visiting the booth on a sustainability tour with CEA. It was being marketed as something for everyone, not something for greenies. Also, many manufacturers have last year's model of television, DVR or other device hooked up in comparison to this year's model, highlighting how much energy efficiency has improved, or materials use, or recyclability, or that it is now capable of connecting to devices for home energy management systems.

All of this is a really, really, really, really good sign. More companies are thinking of sustainability as not just a necessity for their reputation and responsibilities as a gadget manufacturer, but as simply the way things are -- and not just that, but also as a needed part of their product line. Many manufacturers -- Samsung, Panasonic, Motorola, Monster and so on -- are looking at energy efficiency as part of the inevitable future, and they're coming up with products and services that mirror that future, that enable it.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Another example is that of Cubify's 3D printer -- something that doesn't seem to fit into the Sustainable Planet techzone and yet has implications for environmentalism in the design sphere.

3D printing has a bright (and inevitable) future in that it allows designers to create testable prototypes for designs with less waste. It also could be the future of manufacturing, with products -- even electronic products, goodness even whole buildings -- being printed out with near-zero waste rather than pieced together on manufacturing lines with loads of waste. While this home-sized version from Cubify doesn't necessarily allow for that, it does spark the imagination of future designers and engineers, and creates toys, jewelry, accessories and designs that a person has customized and is therefore far more likely to keep -- and it does it with recyclable plastic, with future materials for printing including recycled plastic, biodegradable materials, and even edible materials.

It's exciting stuff. And it's so much bigger than a little techzone set off to the side. It also means that covering CES next year will mean literally going from booth to booth and checking out what products a company has to offer because you never know what they'll have that is in TreeHugger readers' interests.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Optimistic About (Eventual) Sustainability in Electronics
Over all, I came home more pleased and excited about the future of the electronics industry than usual. Yes, consumer electronics manufacturers have a long long long long long long long long long long way to go before the industry can be called "sustainable" without activating the gag reflex. But companies have come a long way in even just the last few years in designing for recyclability and efficiency, in creating products and services that put control over energy use in our hands, and in creating programs and services that allow for repair, recycling and reusability.

The CE industry is far from perfect (and CES is far from a sustainable event in itself) but there is no doubt that this year's CES was inspiring and gave me a little nugget of hope that it won't just be up to makers, indie designers and DIYers to change the industry, but that major manufacturers are taking a real role as well.

I have to admit that I'm already looking forward to next year's CES.

Tags: CES | Corporate Responsibility | Electronics | Gadgets | longreads

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