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Green machines

Gadget makers grapple with environmental conscience

Last Updated September 28, 2007

To reduce her carbon emissions, Vancouverite Jody Radu air dries her laundry as much as any condominium dweller can, rides her bike when possible, forgoes an air conditioner, and unplugs or switches off any electronics in her home that aren't in use. Simply put, she's a model conservationist.

But she's only human. As such, she still fantasizes about owning the odd power-hungry luxury � like a big flat-screen television.

While it can be difficult to track down truly "green gear," Radu's interest in consumer electronics doesn't necessarily have to run contrary to the way she chooses to live her everyday life. Products designed to have less impact on the environment � both from a manufacturing perspective and during day-to-day use - are reaching the market in greater numbers as producers pay attention to the growing ranks of eco-conscious consumers. Companies are also paying more attention to "greening" their public image.

Responsible citizen that she is, Radu decided to research the most environmentally friendly models available before buying, for example. It led her to a contest sponsored by Sharp that asks Canadians to track their personal carbon emissions and blog about the environmental challenges they face on a daily basis.

"I'm not much of a contest-enterer, but this seemed like something where there was an opportunity to win by actually doing something," said Radu, who stands to win a 65-inch Sharp LCD television if she is responsible for fewer overall carbon emissions than her competitors. "I thought it would be a great way to learn more about my carbon output and reduce it."

Sharp's new Kameyama No. 2 television factory just outside Osaka, Japan, has the world's largest roof-based solar panel farm.

The prize may sound at odds with the contest's intent, but it's part of Sharp's goal of promoting conservationism alongside its business operations. The company is also revisiting the way it makes electronics � its new Kameyama No. 2 television factory just outside Osaka, Japan, is a marvel of environmental manufacturing processes. It sports the largest roof-based solar panel farm on the planet, the building's windows are covered with energy-harvesting solar glass panels, and 100 per cent of the plant's waste water is recycled. Sharp claims that it is the most environmentally friendly television factory in the world.

This cutting edge facility has put the LCD maker in the environmental spotlight, but Sharp isn't the only consumer electronics company working toward greener processes. Other high-tech giants, including Panasonic, Sony and Sanyo, have all made headlines recently for initiatives focusing on environmental procurement practices, green manufacturing facilities, and consumer-friendly take-back programs.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard's products are engineered from the ground up to be recycled, for example. The company's devices use minimal paint, glue, and lead � materials that become hazardous when recycled � and are designed to be simple for recycling technicians to pull apart. HP's waste reclamation efforts, now two decades old, recently reached the industry-leading milestone of one billion pounds (453.6 million kilograms).

Competing PC manufacturer Dell, located in Round Rock, Texas, has also become a force in recycling, reporting in July that it is on track to beat its goal of recycling about 113,400 kilograms (250,000 pounds) of reclaimed products by 2009. In August, Dell Canada expanded its Plant a Tree For Me plan, under which customers can pay $2.10 per notebook or $6.30 per PC to plant a tree to help offset the emissions associated with the electricity that will be used to power the device. The program is run in partnership with The Conservation Fund, Carbonfund.org and Tree Canada.

Lack of oversight

There are weeds in the newly greened technology industry, though. There is no shortage of consumer electronics companies claiming conservation initiatives, but, according to Jed Goldberg, president of the national non-profit agency Earth Day Canada, there is a deficiency of non-partisan agencies validating their efforts.

"The reality is that there is very little policing," he says. "Environmental claims are sometimes made by marketers that may or may not be factually true. It's called greenwashing, and it's up to the consumer to decipher which are true and which aren't."

Goldberg adds that incidents of greenwashing within the consumer electronics industry are generally rare and easy to detect. So as Radu did before buying a TV, it pays to do some research into the green claims that companies are making.

"There aren't a lot of false environmental claims that a company can make that wouldn't be obvious to consumers," he says. "If they talk about a reduction in packaging, or a take-back program, it's fairly evident. I'd also tend to believe claims about the reduction of lead soldering in products. But you have to consider the source."

Goldberg adds that claims made by major manufacturers are typically legitimate, but if it's an obscure offshore company making the claim, "you might take it with a grain of salt."

For consumers who desire a guarantee that their products have been produced with an aim to minimize environmental repercussions, Goldberg points to various environmental accreditations that are awarded to products that make the grade.

They include Canada's EcoLogo (three doves in the form of a maple leaf representing consumers, government, and industry linked together), the standard mobius loop symbol (three arrows following one another in a triangle, denoting a product that is recyclable or made of recycled material), and the familiar EnergyStar logo, bestowed by U.S. environmental authorities on products that meet government recommendations for energy consumption.

Some consumer electronics companies also seem to be taking more affirmative action in policing their environmental policies and standards than the governments of the countries in which they operate. Michael O'Neill, a research fellow with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group, says electronics manufacturers "have an earnest desire to deal with end-of-lifecycle processes, if for no other reason than so the government doesn't step in and create their own rules to enforce environmentally responsible behaviour."

Willingness to pay the price

While many CE manufacturers want to become greener, the challenge they face is offsetting what O'Neill calls "the cost associated with environmentally responsible corporate actions."

Put another way, green manufacturing and reclamation processes aren't cheap. As a result, many environmentally friendly products come with a premium price tag. And, according to research conducted by HP, consumers aren't always willing to spend more for greener gadgets.

John Frey, HP's manager of corporate environmental strategies, says his company has conducted studies asking consumers if they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.

"They tell us they are," he says. "But what we see in buying preference is that they don't actually follow through on it; it often goes back to which product is cheaper."

O'Neill agrees that keeping the price of green products low is key to remaining competitive.

"There are certainly some consumers for whom green is an important driver," says O'Neill. "But it's a sliver � less than half, almost certainly � that will actually pay a premium for environmental products."

Frey stated that HP's strategy is to roll out green technologies at the corporate level before scaling to the consumer masses. He says corporations are typically more eager than private consumers to adopt green technology � even if it comes at a higher price.

"Our commercial customers tend to see the return on investment [delivered by green technology] in the long run, and they're willing to pay a premium for those products," says Frey. "As these technologies achieve widespread acceptance in the business community, they start to filter down to consumer products."

Earth Day Canada's Goldberg is more optimistic. He believes that, given a choice, consumers will generally pay a little more for green gear.

"There have been all sorts of studies that prove that if a product can be shown to have some sort of environmental advantage, even if the price is 10 to 15 per cent more expensive, you'll still get uptake from consumers on that," says Goldberg, pointing to the popularity of pricey hybrid cars as evidence. "In general, people shy away from products that they know are environmentally damaging and gravitate towards greener products."

Supporting Goldberg's claim, Sharp Canada's Eteinne Kwan, manager of marketing communications, says that expenses incurred in the construction of the company's cutting edge green plant have already been recovered as a result of blistering increases in LCD television sales.

"We're already starting to see cost savings," says Kwan. "[Our new factory] proves that it's possible for a company to be conscious of the environment and profitable at the same time."

There is at least one Canadian willing to pay a little more for a clean, green conscience: TV giveaway contestant Jody Radu. And she believes she's not alone. "I think Canadians would be more likely to buy enviro-friendly electronics once they are educated about them," says Radu, adding that "a small percentage would be likely to pay a premium for them."

Pragmatic outlook, or the optimistic opinion of a reusable shopping bag owner? Environmentalists and executives alike will continue to watch the bottom lines of suppliers with green manufacturing processes to find an answer to that question.

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