Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of GreenTech Advocates. Author credit goes to Steven Castle.

Take a good look at the EcoSense logo. It may be unfamiliar to you now, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

EcoSense will be used to identify sustainable electronics from computers to TVs, printers to mobile devices and likely tablet PCs. And yes, it could be a very big deal.

ecosense by EPEAT
Image via EPEAT

EcoSense is being tested by EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), which currently identifies sustainable computers on itsonline registry and is branching out to identify greener TVs, imaging devices like printers, and other electronics.

EPEAT, which is managed by the non-profit Green Electronics Council, is probably the most comprehensive sustainability identifier you’ve never heard of. To be listed on the EPEAT registry, products must meet more than 50 different criteria, from energy efficiency to RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) compliance to ease of recycling. Computers listed on its registry must comply with 28 mandatory criteria, with 23 remaining optional. A Bronze designation denotes meeting the minimum 28 criteria, while a Silver product also meets 50 percent or more of optional criteria and a Gold-designated product meets 75 percent or more of the options.

TVs and imaging devices will have to meet similar numbers of criteria.

The registry is used primarily by government agencies and large corporate purchasers to meet mandates for buying green computers. Some 95 percent of computers purchased by many U.S. government agencies, for example, must be EPEAT-certified. An estimated 100 million computers a year are sold based on the EPEAT designation.

Too bad many consumers know nothing about EPEAT. The online registry is an excellent way to research your next computer buy. And soon your next printer, TV or even a tablet purchase.

EcoSense for TVs, Phones and Tablets

EPEAT’s tiny image may grow exponentially with the EcoSense designation, which will officially launch in early 2013 in conjunction with the online imaging devices registry. TVs will follow later, says EPEAT outreach director Sarah O’Brien. Work on standards for computer servers and mobile devices are set to begin as well.

EPEAT’s criteria is based on IEEE 1680 standards, each of which can take a year or more to develop and finalize. O’Brien says it’s unclear whether tablets will be included under the mobile devices or the computer standard, the latter of which will undergo a revamp starting this fall.

The EPEAT standards piggyback those of Energy Star, which denotes energy-efficiency, and Energy Star may soon finalize a new specification for computers that includes tablets (or slates, as Energy Star terms them). If that’s so, tablets will likely be included by EPEAT under the computer standard—and we could see EPEAT-certified tablets bearing the EcoSense logo sometime next year. If Energy Star does not include tablets in its computer spec, EPEAT may include them under mobile devices, along with phones.

The Apple Debate

EPEAT gained some prominence last month when Apple pulled all of its computers from the registry, apparently due to a discovery that its new MacBook Pro with Retina display had its battery pack glued firmly to the casing, violating a mandated criterion for EPEAT for ease of disassembly. The move by Apple caused a ruckus and the company relisted its computers the next week, though whether the MacBook Pro with Retina Display belongs is debatable.

That should be addressed as EPEAT’s computer standard receives its update. And as O’Brien says, using an adhesive doesn’t necessarily make a product difficult to disassemble—and other manufacturers use adhesives as well. The revised EPEAT standard could therefore have lasting design implications for small and sleek devices such as tablets.

A More Credible Designation

The EPEAT registry listing is voluntary by manufacturers, though some of the criteria like a corporate environmental policy and RoHS compliance require documentation and third-party certifications. O’Brien says EPEAT can and does investigate products registered with it at any time and for any criterion—and can de-list a product.

EPEAT’s comprehensive criteria and investigation process should make EcoSense a credible designation—and one that can be used with a variety of electronics.

“EPEAT has always been designed for all sorts of electronics devices,” says O’Brien. The goal of EPEAT is to become that definitive, so people know it’s across an array of criteria.”

The EcoSense designation is currently being tested at an Office Depot store in Portland, Ore., and O’Brien says other partners like Staples would like to test the designation as well. EcoSense will be the consumer face of EPEAT, though whether EcoSense will have gold, silver or bronze designations remains to be seen.

“The interesting trend in general around sustainability is that in order to be precise about what makes a product more sustainable, these standards have become much more complex, yet consumers want something simple and straightforward,” O’Brien says. “People don’t want people to have to learn a big thing.” Yet if they want to dig deeper into what makes a product sustainable, EPEAT’s online registry is a great place to look.

Next Energy Star?

O’Brien says EPEAT does not intend to compete with Energy Star, which is run by the U.S. EPA, even though EPEAT/EcoSense represents much more comprehensive sustainability designation. Energy Star has suffered from credibility issues, stemming from a report in 2010 that found Energy Star’s voluntary listing program could be used to list phony products. Energy Star has since moved to third-party certifications for all its products, and many consumers recognize and understand the Energy Star designation. Still, Energy Star is limited to energy efficiency and does not cover the many other criteria that EPEAT/EcoSense does.

O’Brien looks at EcoSense as a complement to Energy Star, though we will see if shoppers are confused by products bearing the two designations.

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