Greenpeace Electronics Guide Cracks The Whip

Greenpeace is out today with its latest Guide to Greener Electronics, where the global environmental organization puts the spotlight on the green practices of the biggest industry players, all in the hope of spurring less waste and pollution in the manufacturing, use and disposal of consumer electronics. HP landed in first place in the new rankings, on the strength of its sustainable operations. It beat out No.2 Dell, while Nokia slid to the third spot after three years at the top of the heap.

This version of the Guide – the 17th – comes more than a year after the last edition, a longer break than usual between updating. That’s because Greenpeace did some reworking of its categories and criteria. We talked with Greenpeace’s San Francisco-based IT analyst Casey Harrell about those changes, as well as how the ranking have influenced behavior and other aspects of the new Guide to Greener Electronics.

Guide to Green Electronics, Greenpeace

image via Greenpeace

EarthTechling: Previous Guide’s ranked companies on Chemicals, E-waste, and Energy. Now the rankings are based on Energy & Climate, Greener Products and Sustainable Operations. What was the thinking behind this shift and has it made the Greenpeace Guide more exacting?

Greenpeace’s Casey Harrell: In one way, the new categories are simply a different way of organizing/labeling many of the same criteria that were present in previous Guides. However, there are new criteria, and this is one reason I’d say there’s a slight down-tick in scores. We did add new criteria to this version (No. 17) –  it’s the reason we skipped a cycle in publishing the Guide – and generally speaking, companies did not perform (across the board) as well on these criteria as they did in some of the ones we’ve included over a number of Guide iterations.

The second reason is that we toughen the score totals on a few existing criteria. In previous Guides (No. 16), all or most companies were scoring top marks on a few questions. We needed to make our scoring tougher to still differentiate performance – this is generally a good sign that companies have moved in the right direction. You’ll see this in questions like e-waste takeback programs (where we combined a few criteria questions and made scoring slightly tougher) and the question on how companies reduced/mitigated their GHG emissions via a Clean Electricity Plan (we expanded on previous criteria here).

ET: Even the top-rated company, HP, scores “low” in four of 13 categories and “high” in only two categories. And no company is very close to being a truly green company this edition. Is this an indication that while companies are doing good things, they could be doing much better?

GP: In short, yes – companies can, should – and if the past is any prediction of the future, they will do a better job in the future. And as always, we don’t grade on a curve. We assess performance on what we think are the most holistic and representative environmental issues to IT company’s businesses – so if the top scoring consumer electronics company scores a 5.9 out of 10, then it shows there’s still a lot for improvement!

Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics

image via HP

ET: In which ways have companies generally improved the most in the years since the Guide rankings began?

GP: Companies have made improvement in making their devices less toxic – and this has had a natural incentivizing impact on e-waste collection (less sunk costs of toxic waste, more recyclable content), even if overall e-waste has increased, due to massive increases in consumption. While still keeping an eye on this aspect of electronics design, we’re trying now to make sure that companies improve their sourcing of minerals and better manage the energy use throughout the supply chain.

ET: In what one or two ways are companies generally failing to move forward and do a good job?

GP: As you mention above, there are likely a few more than a few areas for improvement!  One area I’d like to focus on – and one that will be increasingly important for companies to get a better handle on (for environmental reasons, for economic reasons as energy/electricity prices increase, and for general supply chain quality management) is the energy embedded/embodied in their supply chain.… It’s the next frontier of environmental campaigning. Companies are generally not even fully measuring their embedded energy – and we’ll be pushing them to do that (it’s admittedly a daunting task) and then set goals for energy reduction (through efficiency) and then using as much renewable electricity as possible. Much like the toxic chemical elimination and e-waste/tackback issues, at first glance this seems like a costly undertaking for companies, but there are many ways to cut waste (efficiency), make money/lessen risk from an inevitable price on carbon.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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