Green Electronics Guide From Greenpeace


Corporate or product "ranking" systems of the past tended toward either an absolute "positive-screen" or a "negative-screen" approach. [Positive screening is what TreeHugger typically uses to find green lifestyle and product choices, for which we admit to some subjectivity: a must when beauty counts.] Pure-play negative screens were likely to populate their "dirty dozen company" lists based on some combination of self-reporting and governmental pollution and penalty reports. Lately we've seen more attempts to rank with "balanced" criteria, such as the new Green Electronics Guide from Greenpeace, which maps the major electronics makers on a spectrum ranging from a theoretical 'perfect green', through 'less bad', and down to to 'red-zone bad'. Have a glance at the full details of the new GP Guide ranking of Apple, Inc. here , or just the summary below the

We like the graphic approach. However, while the Guide is based on logical metrics, missing is credit for light weighting of products (reducing mass or even turning grams to bytes). Think how much material has been conserved by the MP3 player, especially the iPOD. By Apple's pairing of its iPOD with its iTunes music distribution business, it surely could receive some credit for helping tip the for-profit music business, at-large, away from relying on sales of "stuff". As if cued to this very idea, the Financial Times of yesterday reported that: " Universal Music, the world's largest music company is backing a start-up website [SpiralFrog] that will allow consumers to download songs for free. It will rely on advertising for its revenues, " When SpiralFrog opens it's cyber doors for business in December of 2006, it could lead to positive environmental performance changes on a global scale. (Tip of the hat to Apple for helping take us one step further, and also to the now-banished file sharing innovators who first made online distribution known to the world's music lovers.)

The GP Guide also seems to overlook important value-laden tradeoffs. Example: is it better to design for disposable, single-use batteries, or to incorporate sealed rechargeables that match the design life of the operating technology? Who says so, and on what basis? And what about greenhouse gas emissions as a function of product design and end-use patterns? GHG emissions in product use-phase is something Greenpeace seems not to have even touched on.

The Guide's heavy focus on chemical use and/or material choice is also a bit confounding. Example: coated copper wiring commonly brings PVC along for the ride. The larger the electronic device, the greater the likelihood that non-trivial amounts of wire will be used: hence big devices like computers are almost sure to get down-ranked for PVC use. Perhaps Greenpeace hoped the Guide would encourage wire makers to find an alternate coating that meets consumer product fire protection specs? If so, why not just rank wire manufacturers? Could not early, global RoHS compliers get extra positive credit?

By now, most readers will have heard about the recent computer battery recalls from Dell and Apple. Millions of lithium batteries will have to be replaced at double the resource consumption per computer sold. Sony being the rechargeable battery supplier to both companies, the proactive solution is one of quality improvement at a single site, while the reactive solution is to ensure that the reclaimed batteries are actually recycled. This takes us to the big and value laden 'supply chain' issue: whose responsibility is it to design recyclable batteries, and make certain recycling potential actually meshes with retail business models in the first place? In this case, would it be Sony? Apple? Dell? Or, is it a shared responsibility of the industry at large with goverment as enabler/enforcer?

We wonder what it would take to make and profitably sell a "perfect" green electronic device per these criteria? Would it be a thing of beauty; or, a mongrel of pure functionality?

Finally, we puzzle over what happens when electronics design gets outsourced to China, a country not known for wise environmental management choices. We doubt whether a Chinese computer designer would spend much time reading a Greenpeace Guide. He might even be blocked from doing so by his own government! And if so, where does the "green-ness" feed back loop start and end?

Let us know what you think?


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