Photo via syvwlch via Flickr CC
Shall we file this in the "Just What We Needed Dept"? It's yet another group getting in on the green gadget evaluation and labeling systems, this time launched by the very folks you really can't trust to be unbiased when it comes to electronic products and promoting their eco-features. The Sustainability Consortium has been launched by heavy hitters in the electronics and retail sectors as an effort to help consumers identify - and of course purchase - "green" electronics. Rather than getting fully behind a third-party rating system like EPEAT or UL Environment and helping advance them into the consumer eye, the companies have decided to take matters into their own hands and push for consumer outreach on electronics themselves.
The mission statement: "The Sustainability Consortium is an independent organization of diverse global participants that work collaboratively to build a scientific foundation that drives innovation to improve consumer product sustainability."
According to their press information, The Sustainability Consortium is co-administered by Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas, and will work in conjunction with Best Buy, Dell, HP, Intel, Toshiba, and Walmart, to research and publish findings on the lifecycle environmental and social impacts of electronic products. So in other words, the people making and selling the devices being evaluated will back the evaluations. Yeah, sounds really trustworthy.
ZDNet reports, "On a call held to discuss the aims of the project, Dell's environmental strategist Scott O'Connell emphasized that this group doesn't plan to start and maintain a ratings system itself -- for either its own or competitors' products. In fact, O'Connell believes that the group will wind up working with third-party organizations such as the Green Electronics Council, which manages the EPEAT rating system, to move forward."
Interesting that they're so adamant about this, condsidering in big lettering on their webpage they state, "The Sustainability Consortium develops transparent methodologies, tools and strategies to drive a new generation of products and supply networks that address environmental, social and economic imperatives. The Sustainability Consortium advocates for a transparent process and system, not individuals or organizations." [emphasis mine]
Why do I feel a strong suspicion that the consortium is going to "work" with third party organizations simply in order to massively broaden what electronics get considered to be, and labeled, sustainable?
"These findings will be used to support efforts to identify products as sustainable or "green." This type of information is designed to reduce consumer confusion and help standardize product claims." Yeah...we'll bet. It really takes the steam out of (somewhat) more trustworthy rankings that are finally making their way into the consumer stream, such as with EPEAT and their recent partnership with Amazon.com.
Among the criteria for evaluation will be the impacts on the people who make, use and dispose of the electronics, and their impact on the environment from cradle to grave (or, if the consortium actually does their job in identifying green electronics, then cradle to cradle).
The interesting, and confusing, aspect of the announcement is that they're looking at how to collaborate with other organizations such as EPEAT and Energy Star.... Why not work with them in the first place rather than reinvent yet another wheel that will only add to consumer confusion - defeating the purpose of the consortium right off the bat?
"Developing additional detailed information on the lifecycle impacts of electronics will not only help our customers make educated buying decisions, but assist companies to make clear, pointed product sustainability claims," said Engelina Jaspers, vice president of environmental sustainability, HP. "Reaching uniformity in communicating sustainability claims will be a decision made in the name of consistency, transparency, and simplicity and will benefit all involved."
Right - this coming from members of an industry that is currently suing New York City for establishing a strict electronics recycling regulation.
So, do more labels and evaluation standards really help eliminate consumer confusion? We think not. Making those that are already established even stronger in their requirements and standards, and making them more recognizable - specifically EPEAT and Energy Star - is the way to go. This consortium, at least for now, looks more like the electronics industry gearing up to push evaluation standards and information only where they want them to go, not where they should go.
The consortium is starting off with laptops, desktops and monitors during the third quarter of this year, adding in more devices as more manufacturers and retailers are recruited into the consortium. We'll have to wait and see what sort of influence they're able to wield over the industry.