Greenpeace and High-Tech’s Gargantuan Green Gap

Why can’t tech companies go green? With such luminaries as Google, IBM and HP forming the vanguard of the clean tech movement, it may seem a silly question to ask. Headlines trumpeting these companies’ initiatives — not to mention the nonstop announcements of new energy-saving IT products — would seem to suggest the tech industry is green all over.

Greenpeace’s quarterly report on the industry, though, says otherwise. First released in August 2006, the organization’s “Guide to Greener Electronics” has shamed many companies — Apple, in particular — by pointing out their less-than-environmentally friendly practices, such as using toxic materials in products and offering inadequate or no e-waste recycling, disposal or take-back programs.

The latest report is no different. Microsoft, Nintendo, Philips and Sharp found themselves at the bottom of the environmental performance rankings; Nintendo, in fact, was singled out with the dubious distinction of being the first company scoring zero out of a possible 10 points.

The reasons range from too long a time line for the elimination of toxic chemicals and poor takeback policies (Microsoft), to no timeline for toxic chemicals elimination and no e-waste policy (Philips), to actively lobbying in the U.S. for regressive takeback policies (Toshiba).

In contrast, Sony Ericsson wrested the top spot from Nokia this time. Samsung and Sony claimed the second and third positions.

The report ranks tech companies in the following order:

  • Sony Ericsson – 7.7
  • Samsung – 7.7
  • Sony – 7.3
  • Dell – 7.3
  • Lenovo – 7.3
  • Toshiba – 7
  • LGE – 7
  • Fujitsu-Siemens – 7
  • Nokia – 6.7
  • HP – 6.7
  • Apple – 6
  • Acer – 5.7
  • Panasonic – 5
  • Motorola – 5
  • Sharp – 4.7
  • Microsoft – 2.7
  • Philips – 2
  • Nintendo – 0

Why Not?

For companies that base their brands not only on performance and design but also on their corporate reputations, this is the burning question: Why are you still performing so poorly?

The answer is not as simple as extra costs weighing down a bottom line; indeed, there is increasing evidence that green practices can improve a company’s finances — not only in tech performance, but also in supply chain operations, and building management and development, to name just two other disciplines.

Rather, the reasons for the poor performance are far more complex — including the inability of corporate structures to cope with what is basically a new field, as well as the simple fact that designing a holistic green operation from design to supply chain to operation to disposal is a very difficult endeavor.

Proper disposal of computer equipment, for instance, is an obvious category in which environmentally friendly practices should be developed — and one that firms routinely flub.

Poor planning during the acquisition phase is a big culprit, said Chris Adam, director of asset management services for NextPhase, which handles asset disposition for enterprises.

“There is no one owner of the disposition process,” he told TechNewsWorld. “It might be a decision by committee made up of folks from IT, finance, procurement and operations. Also, rarely are budgets set up for disposal.”

Not having a baseline from which to measure advances is another problem for companies, Michael Meehan, CEO of Carbonetworks, told TechNewsWorld. Carbonetworks is a software and services company that helps clients create effective greenhouse gas emissions strategies.

“You get what you measure, and traditionally IT companies haven’t been watching this area,” Meehan explained.

In short, no one company is able to address green concerns from beginning to end, Ryan Martens, founder of Rally Software Development, told TechNewsWorld.

Even the companies leading the charge can inadvertently send the wrong message — namely, that greening the tech industry is easy. Google is pushing very hard in this area, Martens pointed out, “but it doesn’t have to deal with product design or disposal.”

Indeed, the design phase can be the most difficult of all to master — green-wise — as everything from materials to the supply chain to packaging must be taken into account.

There is also the fear of appearing to exploit the green movement. “There is a worry of ‘green-wash’ — that is, a company adopting green technology or practices because it is the popular thing to do now,” said Meehan.

Eventually, the market or the customer base will punish such insincerity, he added.

One-Off Initiatives

None of this, though, is to excuse a company’s complete paralysis on the issue — or worst of all, manipulating the political process to support its non-green practices. The good news is that as firms grapple with the larger issues — what really works? what’s the best prospect for realizing a return in the near term? how can returns be measured? — many are implementing programs on a piecemeal basis.

Some are going for the grand — and, yes, public relations friendly — gesture. Some are implementing serious initiatives meant to make an immediate impact on both internal financials and the environment.

Many, of course, are doing both. Dell, for instance, has had a recycling service in place since 2004. At last year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, it also introduced — to much fanfare — a “Plant a Tree for Me program,” which invites customers to donate a small portion of the purchase price of a Dell product to funds that plant trees around the world.

IBM and HP also have extensive recycling programs in place.

Companies outside of the big IT providers are implementing similar measures for reasons both economic and altruistic.

To name just one example, there’s been an increase in the use of synthetic jet technology to cool data storage centers and develop LED (light-emitting diode) options to reduce energy consumption, according to Mick Wilcox, product manager for Nuventix.

The company has calculated, for instance, that a 1,300-asset server farm can save US$250,000 per year in electrical bills by using this technology.

“We are definitely seeing demand grow because of these savings,” Wilcox told TechNewsWorld.

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