Jolly green giants

We analyse the eco efforts of leading tech vendors
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          The technology industry is not renowned for eco friendliness. From the manufacturing and consumption of products to the growing amount of greenhouse gas emitted by data centres, tech inevitably creates a heavy carbon footprint. Every leading vendor, however, has some sort of environmental policy or initiative in place to cushion the environmental impact and score a few public relations points along the way.

          Greenpeace recently released the third version of its Cool IT Leaderboard – an assessment of how green certain leading manufacturers are. Cisco came top of the scoreboard of 15 firms, while Panasonic shuffled about at the bottom. Companies were scored on their products, their operational emissions and their engagement in political advocacy regarding climate change.

          “IT companies just talking in abstraction about how IT can save the planet – that’s not good enough,” says Casey Harrell, electronics campaign coordinator for Greenpeace International. “While we care about providing IT solutions for climate change for the climate’s sake, these companies may not be altruistic, they can make a lot of money in a constrained economy, so it’s also a business opportunity.”

          John Swatton, marketing specialist at Asus, agrees that companies can no longer get away with making vague statements about being green. “Rather than make promises, the proof is in the pudding – we demonstrate that via the independent accreditations and recognition we get for reducing power consumption and the impact on the environment,” he comments.

          WOOD YOU BELIEVE IT?

          One of Asus’ big green ventures has been the Bamboo notebook. Not entirely dissimilar in appearance to a wood-panelled station wagon, Asus’ device is clad in bamboo. According to Swatton, this means the product is made from around 20 per cent less plastic than a traditional notebook and the bamboo used is sustainably farmed and quick to grow. “It’s a type of bamboo that’s not eaten by pandas so we’re not endangering the panda population,” he adds.

          Dell, meanwhile, has taken a slightly more conventional approach to making its products eco friendly. “We’ve made our notebooks and desktops 25 per cent more energy efficient since 2008,” says Vic Smith, Dell’s senior strategic technologist for EMEA. “We’re transitioning our notebooks to LED displays, which are mercury-free, highly recyclable, use much less energy, offer longer battery life and allow thinner designs.”

          As Harrell implies, vendors do not necessarily make these changes simply out of the goodness of their hearts. There are legal obligations which mean that now, more than ever, tech firms have to clean up their acts. The Government’s CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme was introduced earlier this year; a mandatory programme aimed at improving energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions.

          “With the UK’s carbon reduction commitment legislation having kicked off in April, many of the larger companies are already focusing on reducing their carbon baselines and looking at technologies that can avoid heavy carbon processes. That could be things like video conferencing, centralising printing, improving your data sensors or looking at power management on PCs,” observes Ian Brooks, European head of innovation and sustainable computing at HP. “From a UK perspective most of our energy at HP is already from renewable sources. There are programmes that are going through as we speak to broaden the coverage of the renewable energy contracts that we’ve got.”

          According to US-based Harrell, companies operating in the UK and wider European Union are subject to many more environmental restrictions than his homeland. The EU’s RoHS Directive, for example, which came into force in this country in 2006, limits the levels of certain chemicals that can be used in the manufacture of electronic devices. Harrell says that while there was initially some resistance from the big vendors, many have changed their tune since the legislation was first introduced.

          “We’re coming up to revise the RoHS Directive and instead of it being Greenpeace and a bunch of public health advocates and other environmentalists on one side and the IT industry the other side, we’re now going into Parliament hand in hand with many of the IT industry,” he comments. “They made the change in their supply chain, they invested the R&D costs for substitutes that are inherently safer, and they want to punish the rest of their competitors.”

          WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

          As every part of the channel is aware, the other major piece of EU legislation to come into effect in recent years is the WEEE Directive. Many vendors have taken their waste disposal obligations one step further and applied them on an international level.

          “We were the first major computer manufacturer to ban the export of non-working electronics to developing countries as part of our global policy on responsible electronics disposal. We’re actively calling for the rest of the electronics industry to join us,” says Dell’s Vic Smith.

          However keen major tech vendors might seem to comply with legislation and promote their eco credentials, some have levelled the criticism that these schemes are just a marketing ploy, or simply ‘greenwashing’.

          “For years, when there wasn’t the pressure of legislation, there wasn’t the pressure of consumers demanding this [eco-friendliness], it was complete greenwash,” observes Harrell. “We have to stay vigilant and call it out when we do see it, because we still do – it’s not something that’s completely in the past.”

          ECO WORRIERS

          While the vendors are obviously aware of this perception, they believe it’s unjust. “If you’ve got facts and figures that are backing up the claims that you’re making, for me that’s the acid test. If industry watchers who have done extensive audits on HP’s policies have come into HP and reviewed us, if they think that HP’s in a good position then that helps enormously,” Brooks suggests. Smith, meanwhile, says that Dell never makes claims about sustainability without having the evidence to back it up.

          The situation is something of a Catch-22; do nothing and you are polluting the environment, or make changes and be accused of ‘spin’. The solution for vendors, it seems, is to improve the eco friendliness of their products and operations without turning every green initiative into a PR opportunity.

          “No-one’s going to say that tech companies are carbon neutral, that’s unrealistic. What we can do is constantly review what we’re doing to try and reduce our impact on the environment,” concludes Asus’ John Swatton.

          GREENPEACE COOL IT LEADERBOARD

          The five highest scoring firms:

          1. Cisco – 62/100
          2. Ericsson – 53/100
          3. IBM – 42/100
          4. HP – 41/100
          5. Fujitsu – 36/100

          ECO EFFORTS

          What the vendors are doing:

          HP

          *Has tripled recycled materials used in inkjet printers since 2007
          *Plans to cut GHG emissions from its facilities by 20 per cent between 2005 and 2013
          *Aims to double voluntary purchases of renewable energy to eight per cent by 2012

          Asus

          *Requires all manufacture sites to implement energy-saving projects
          *Super Hybrid Engine in new generation notebooks can boost battery life by up to 53 per cent
          *No longer ships products with printed manuals

          Dell

          *Sources around 26 per cent of its energy from green power
          *Plans to reduce its facilities’ GHG emissions by 40 per cent between 2007 and 2015
          *Aims to reduce packaging by ten per cent between 2008 and 2012

          Acer

          *Promotes ‘Trees for Green’ initiative, planting one tree for every product sold (up to a certain number)
          *Acer PowerSmart key on notebooks increase energy efficiency when activated, saving around 2,320 tons of CO2
          *Is working on detachable product designs to improve recyclability

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