Technology

Toxic Tech: Greenpeace Speaks


Its environmental ranking of Sony, Nintendo and other electronics makers raises consumer awareness—but does it factor into buying decisions?

Greenpeace is smacking Microsoft and Nintendo for using toxic chemicals in their video game consoles, while applauding longtime target Apple for improving its green credentials. But the group's latest quarterly ranking of electronics vendors, issued Nov. 27, in the thick of holiday shopping, also spotlights the difficulty in measuring the environmental impact of such products—and raises questions about whether customers really care.

Greenpeace's sixth "Guide to Greener Electronics" ranked Nintendo (NTDOY) last among 18 companies, criticizing the Japanese company for its failure to offer a recycling program for its old video game consoles or disclose any information about chemicals used to make its hot-selling Wii machine. Microsoft (MSFT), another newcomer to the list, ranked 16th for setting a comparatively late date of 2011 for eliminating the use of toxic plastics and flame retardants from its hardware, which includes its Xbox game machine and Zune digital music player.

Flexible Yardstick

Apple (APPL), which Greenpeace has assailed repeatedly in surveys past (BusinessWeek.com, 10/26/07), moved up one notch to 11th place in the latest ranking on the strength of its pledge to eliminate certain chemicals by 2008. Top honors went to cell-phone maker Sony Ericsson and electronics conglomerate Samsung (SSNLF). The two companies tied for first, each scoring 7.7 out of a possible 10 points, on the strength of their recycling programs and the absence of some harmful chemicals in their products.

Greenpeace ranks electronics makers on the speed with which they're phasing out brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, a chemical used to make plastic more pliable for wiring. The rankings also reflect companies' willingness to take back old products for recycling. The latest report comes amid the post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping rush (BusinessWeek.com, 11/26/07), in which consumers are expected to snap up millions of laptops, iPods, printers, digital cameras, and other electronic goods.

But the rankings also underscore the wide array of environmental impact yardsticks—anything but consistent in their parameters—that consumers and businesses are confronted with when making purchasing decisions. In addition to Greenpeace, industry groups and government regulators in the U.S., European Union, Canada, and Germany all have issued metrics and rules governing the use of toxic chemicals in products, energy consumption by those machines, and recycling of discarded equipment. "There are a lot of tools out there; and maybe too many," says Dave Stangis, Intel's (INTC) director of corporate responsibility. "There's no doubt it's tough" for consumers to make sense of all the ratings, he says. But, "the Greenpeace list is definitely driving awareness."

"Cynical" Consumers

When you factor in the way electronics makers promote every environmentally friendly move they make, and the fire that Greenpeace has taken for picking a fight with Apple to publicize its agenda, it's not surprising consumers may have a hard time sorting out competing claims. "It always seems to be certain companies that get targeted first," says Chris Crotty, analyst at industry researcher iSuppli.

And given the apparent lack of strong consumer demand (BusinessWeek.com, 9/10/07) for eco-friendly products when buying computers and electronics, a manufacturer's production costs still tend to count for more than its green bona fides at the cash register. "The bottom line is, [consumers] are quite cynical about it," says Roger Kay, president of industry researcher Endpoint Technologies Associates. "Everybody is hopping aboard the 'We've got to be green' train, and there's a lot of lip service."

Kay puts vendors' eco-friendly initiatives into three categories. Some manufacturing changes, such as replacing a harmful material with a nature-friendlier one that costs less, are "no-brainers," he says. Then there's commonsense global compliance with stringent local regulations in places such as Germany and Scandinavia. Such moves can prove cost-effective for large PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) by reducing the need to produce different products for different markets. Last, there are "feel-good" efforts, such as PC maker Dell's (DELL) offer to plant trees for buyers of its PCs to help offset the carbon dioxide emissions of those products. "That's the category that's squishiest," says Kay.

Costly Changes

Greenpeace gave Dell a strong 7.3 rating, citing the company's pledge to stop using brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride by 2009, as well as its aggressive recycling program. It gave HP a 6.7 rating for its pledge to eliminate the chemicals from computers—but not all its products—by 2009.

Whether companies are cleaning up their acts to get ahead of tough regulations or for better public relations, such efforts are very expensive. On Nov. 11, Intel said its new 45-nanometer chips eliminate the use of lead and will soon exclude halogens, a class of materials that includes brominated flame retardants soon to be prohibited by EU regulations. Intel's efforts to stop using lead alone has spanned hundreds of engineers' time over five years, according to Stangis. "It's definitely more expensive," he says.

Greenpeace's quarterly pounding on the electronics industry's biggest companies has no doubt raised consumers' awareness of what's in their gear. What's less clear is how eco-savvy shoppers will navigate the thicket of pronouncements and criticisms coming from both sides.

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