Casey Harrell of Greenpeace on Greener Electronics

December 6, 2009

In the last half decade Greenpeace has come to work increasingly closely with electronics manufacturers, encouraging them to reduce toxic chemicals, increase energy efficiency, and take responsibility for the disposal of consumer electronics. Casey Harrell creates Greenpeace’s Green Electronics Survey and their Guide to Greener Electronics.

Dharma: When and why did Greenpeace single out electronics manufacturers for a campaign?

Casey: This became a priority issue for Greenpeace in 2004. The impetus for us was the growing amount of electronic waste that was ending up on the shores of developing nations around the world. Electronic waste is highly toxic. We’ve worked on topics like the human health impact of industrial waste for a long time across different industries. Overseas, this waste was often openly burned for black market scrap metal to get the gold and copper wirings of computers, televisions, and cell phones. The burning was releasing halogenated dioxins, which are cancer-causing materials, into the local ground water, soil, and air.  These areas could be termed “human health hotspots.”  Scientific studies showed that cancer rates and neurological developmental challenge rates in these areas were off the charts. It looked like electronic waste, and the growing amount of it, was the big culprit.  So we began to focus on the sector.

Dharma: What kinds of products and manufacturers are you following?

For our greener electronics work we try to follow all the global players from the big manufacturers down to the product and components suppliers. So, I am regularly in Asia. We follow a lot of consumer electronics companies: companies that sell TVs, monitors, laptops, cell phones, PDAs, etc. In the computer world most companies are global brands, so it’s a challenging, but manageable number. This is everyone from Dell, HP, Apple, Toshiba, Sony, Sharp, LG, Samsung, Acer in Taiwan, Lenovo in China, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Siemens in Europe.

How do you assess these products and manufacturers?

In our product survey and in our Guide to Greener Electronics we assess companies in, roughly, three categories. One is chemicals management. That’s mainly on the design side: what toxic chemicals are you designing out of your products?  A second category is waste.  What are you doing to increase the product life span? Are you offering warranties or product components ?  What are you doing in terms of agreeing to take the waste back – to recycle and reuse responsibly rather than dumping, burning, or exporting overseas?  The third one is energy: what’s the greenhouse gas footprint of your product? That requires measuring the supply chain.  What company-wide commitments are you making on your energy and greenhouse gas reductions?  Are you making in-house reductions on greenhouse gas emissions-  for example, in your office, marketing and shipping practices?

The Guide to Greener Electronics ranks eighteen of the biggest global brands. Other companies often want us to rank them in there as well, which is surprising.  For the up & comers it’s kind of a badge of honor. We also do a green product guide which deals less with the company-wide policy and more with individual green products.

It is generally recognized that first step to greening ICT is creating greener electronics. Greenpeace is clearly a major force in this space. More recently people have begun to talk about how using ICT to do things like manage buildings more energy efficiently actually has the power to have an even greater environmental impact. Does your work touch on this?

Casey: Yes, it does. We’re looking at climate solutions separately from the consumer electronics category. These are companies that say, “because I’m using this software or hardware in other sectors – transport, buildings – to create efficiency, you can measure the gains.”  That’s why this is a profitable business for IT companies. These are not the companies that are selling you a laptop that runs more efficiently than the previous laptop. That is an energy efficiency gain, but that is in a product.  Our new project on non-consumer electronics asks companies things like:  What are you doing in terms of lobbying for broader greenhouse gas reductions?  These companies have a whole lot of money to make from climate legislation mandating significant reductions because their technologies can actually supply those reductions.  So, we are asking them to show us how their products are actually making reductions in green house gas emissions.

The subtitle of the 2008 Green Electronics Survey was “Green Electronics, The Search Continues.”  Is there such a thing as a green electronic?

There is theoretically a green electronic. Generally speaking we try to refer to these as “greener electronics” because we’re mainly talking about things that have a negative environmental footprint, and we are trying to lessen that footprint. Theoretical exceptions to that would be electronics that earn “negawatts” – that actually create energy, and feed it back to the grid. It’s not inconceivable that in the future our laptops won’t use energy but we’re nowhere near that.  We would have to move into some directions that we’re not seeing in this sector to call something truly green, otherwise it’s generally a “less bad” situation.

You mentioned that you work 16-hour days.  What motivates you to work so hard?

Casey: It’s important work. I’ve been doing work for social and environmental change for over a dozen years.  When you actually have a campaign that’s making progress, you’ve got to put in the hours to make it happen. There’s always going to be a finite amount of time and money, so you do what you can to make up for that. Our work has been successful. We have achieved a lot of change in the sector. We have had a considerable amount of influence. I see the results of the work and it’s very rewarding.

Dharma: What have been the important results of the work?

Casey: There have been some big industry shifts – things that weren’t there when we started working on this issue five years ago.  For example, now all global manufacturers accept the financial responsibility of their waste. When we started every company wanted to export that cost to municipalities and consumers. They were basically saying, “This is not our problem. It’s your computer. Deal with it.”  Now they understand that they have a financial responsibility to see that at the end of that product’s use, it’s recycled or reused properly.  That’s a huge change.

Another important shift has been the significant commitment to green design, which has eliminated toxic and harmful chemicals from some electronics products. This has a huge end-of-life impact on both people and the environment. Eliminating these things also makes the products highly recyclable and highly re-useable. And that adds to companies’ willingness to take back these products at the end of their life.  We’re also seeing some energy use and energy consumption changes, though there’s still a problem in terms of the overall amount of energy that electronics use.

Today, there is tremendous commitment at fairly high levels in most of these companies to tackle these issues. We may not always agree, but at least it is more accepted that doing good things for the environment is a good thing, both for the environment and for company pocketbooks.  I’m optimistic.

Dharma: Your campaign sounds like an important part of the ecology pushing for greener electronics. What else is influencing this change?

Casey: There are other non-profits that have worked in very specific spaces, that have chased and exposed e-waste, or that have worked on toxic chemical issues in the factories, also, some regulators – primarily in Europe, have been pushing this work forward. Now we’re seeing progressively minded and forward thinking companies playing a positive role themselves.  There are plenty of other actors here. We try to be more of a catalyst to drive key issues that aren’t getting attention. This is huge. We can’t do it alone.

Dharma: Reading through your reports I got the sense that the rate of change was quite rapid and also very iterative. You set green benchmarks that change from year to year.  Would you talk about the rate of change?

Casey: Compared to working in other sectors like, say, the coal electricity generation sector, that have been doing the same thing, roughly, for 70 or 80 years, the rate of change in the IT sector is huge. This industry is built on the meme of innovation. Companies can’t stare us down, and say, “That’s too difficult, we can’t do that,” when they promise the world that they will innovate every three to four months.

It’s a really nice meme to work with in the sense that we can say, “You can’t say, ‘no’.”   We are also dealing with a highly competitive sector.  We’ve essentially stopped fighting with companies about the efficacy of our work. The rate of change is now what we’re fighting about. We’re always going to push and prod and say, “You’ve got to do more, faster.” But, really that’s a nice position to be in for a campaigning organization because we are no longer having to fight for the recognition of the efficacy of our core values and tenets.  You are just arguing about the rate of change.

Dharma: Beyond swapping out a toxic chemical for a less toxic chemical, or swapping out a higher watt CPU for a lower watt CPU, are there any changes in operation or culture of electronics manufacturers that support greening of their products?

Five years ago we were dealing with people in most companies who knew very little about these issues because the companies themselves had put very scant resources into their environmental teams.  The teams were filled more with PR specialists who were there to sway you. Now companies have people whose jobs are to deal with these core issues – not to deal with us – but to deal with these core issues. So, many times we share very similar views.  We try our best to strengthen their bargaining position within the company.  We know that these people’s performance is going to be evaluated by how well the company does on environmental things.  They have a strong, personal, vested interested in moving along sound, forward-thinking environmental policies that will often times save the company money and also bring good publicity.

Who are the people in the manufacturing sector that are moving green technology forward?

Casey: There are people in-house now some of whom have as their main job responsibilities these specific issues that we’re talking about.  They’re scientists, engineers, project managers, corporate social responsibility people. Generally speaking we’re getting people that are really well versed on energy and chemical issues, but less so in waste – the waste collection and disassembly is not done by the companies, but by third party folks.   We’re getting the attention of more senior policy people when we’re turning around and asking companies to lobby for particular legislation.  It’s on their docket now.

In the Green Electronics survey you compare real products that are on the market today to an ideal product that’s a composite of the best green innovations of all the products that you’re evaluating.  Are manufacturers willing to share best practices to accelerate green product development?

In certain cases they are.  For example, PVC plastic and brominated flame retardants are two products that are coming up in the waste stream. They are found in electronics wiring, casing, printed circuit boards, laminates, external power cords – all throughout the products.  Eliminating them has been patchwork: “Okay we’ve got a fix for this one, but not yet for that one.”  In some of these cases we’ve pushed for open collaboration within the industry on best practices.

But the bottom line is that it’s fairly insignificant at one level to promote the spread of best practices because every product is reverse engineered.  If Company X comes out with a stellar product, all of their competitors are going to buy it, take it apart, and reverse engineer it.  They may be behind one product cycle on that innovation, but they won’t be far off.  Product cycles are very short, just three to six months.

Also, these companies use the same supply chain. Companies do not work exclusively with particular manufacturers.  The people that are supplying the fans for your Dell laptop have most likely, in the past, supplied fans for all the major laptops.  So, any innovation that’s made with a particular component manufacturer is going to be easily adapted and carried through with any of the big manufacturers.

It’s nice to have open collaboration, but ultimately if a company told us: “HP is not playing nice,”  we could say,  “It would be nice if HP would play nice, but we know you can get the information you’re looking for in terms of any innovation that HP’s doing from the product and from their suppliers, so don’t use this as a roadblock to tell us that you can’t do anything now.”

Dharma: What is the role you see for electronics consumers in greening ICT?

Casey: The biggest one is that folks vote with their pocketbook. It’s our job to separate green fact from green fiction so that consumers aren’t hoodwinked. Time and time again, consumers are saying, “We want green products. We want products that are highly functional and don’t compromise function for environmental performance.” We’ve gotten consumers involved in different portions of our campaign to really drive home points.  The biggest example of that is our Green My Apple campaign.

There needs to be more organizations working in this space.  On the consumer side, it’s lonely.  We need more help. There needs to be a greater level of education on these issues. Now we’re at the very blunt level where consumers are saying, “Yes, I want a green product.” That’s a huge step forward.  But, there needs to be more education. There are companies that are more than happy to tell you, “Our product’s the greenest because the booklet that comes with your computer that you’re going to read once and throw away is printed on recycled paper.” That’s great that it’s printed on recycled paper, but that’s a tiny percent of the environmental footprint of the product. Consumer education needs to be simple. It needs to be on the front page of every company’s website. We’re not there yet.

What is invisible to me as we’re talking is the role of policy in making these changes.  What role do policy and standards bodies have in greening ICT?

Casey: Mandating bodies such as the U.S. Congress, the European Union, or the Japanese Parliament can enact rules and regulations that have teeth. On these issues the European Union has been more forward thinking and has taken over the mantle from the U.S. Congress as the most progressive environmental legislative body in the world.

There are also industry standards setting bodies, like who set the standard for what it means, for example, to be PVC and brominated flame retardant-free.  It doesn’t mean that every member of the ICP, which includes all of the major manufacturers, has to produce PVC and brominated flame retardant-free products, but if they do, they have helped set the standard for what that means.

I worked for years in DC. We often view the legislative and the policy stuff as the ending work for a campaign.  One of the most common mistakes in environmental policy-making goes as follows:  “Well, let’s see what’s doable in terms of a vote. Because of the various biases of power and structure in our country, we know we’re going to get slaughtered on this vote.   So, we will compromise and get a very weakened form of what we want.”

Dharma: How does your current strategy differ?

We’ve taken a different approach. We have not issued policy-making as a key component here. We recognized at the beginning of this work that we were going to get slaughtered. Everybody in the industry was against our position. Ideally, we would have a fighter’s chance of winning that battle, but we know the reality of how our political system is structured.

So, we said, “Unless we get industry support on this, we’re not going to win the day. How do we get industry support? We get voluntary action first.” Getting these companies to go green requires getting companies to voluntarily do more than is required by law.  Then saying, “That’s great! Kudos. You’ve raised the bar, but you’ve probably also got some early adopter costs that are fairly significant for doing the right thing. Wouldn’t it be great if your competitors were forced to do something you’ve already voluntarily done?” And, then the light bulb goes on in their head and the companies say, “You know what? We can crush our competition with this. This is smart. This is good.” And, then they say, “Okay, I’ll go lobby with you for what you want, because it’s now what I want.”  So, we’re in a much better position when we go into the European Union, the U.S. Congress and say, “It’s not Greenpeace versus the IT industry. It’s the IT industry versus some of the laggards in the IT industry.”

Where do you see this work going next?

Casey: We’re working within the larger IT sector on climate solutions work. We look at all the tech companies that may be involved in anything from Smart Grid infrastructure to smart buildings manufacturing. That’s a whole other group of companies, and includes companies that are more familiar like Yahoo, Google, Cisco, Intel, to companies that nobody’s ever heard of.

The climate work on IT solutions is much more complicated because it involves less of a direct consumer component. It’s not as simple as, “Buy this cell phone over that cell phone.” But, this work is absolutely critical. Twenty percent of the greenhouse gas emission reduction that we need as a planet to survive can be obtained through IT solutions.  IT climate work is mainly about energy efficiency gains, which is not as sexy as installing solar or wind power, but it’s key.

Right now companies are saying, “We’re doing great on global warming.  We’ve committed to reduce our in-house greenhouse gas emissions by x%.   And our x% is better than the US average, better than what the governments are agreeing to do.”   But, the bottom line is that what they are doing cuts about 10% of their greenhouse gas impact.  Thirty to forty percent of that comes from the supply chain – to make the product.   And, the rest is the use of the product once they sell it to you.  So, company reductions so far are fairly insignificant, but IT solutions can help reduce emissions.

Dharma: What is the biggest challenge that you face?

Casey: The white elephant in the room in all the conversations we have with companies is planned obsolescence.  We can achieve a future where there are zero toxic chemicals put into the product.  We can create products that are completely benign from a chemical standpoint, and that run factors higher in terms of efficiency.  We can get companies to take back a product when it’s finished. Recycling will be free and convenient.  We can pass great laws that will prohibit the burning, dumping and exportation of e-waste. Companies can re-use 100% of the product. But, if they’re still selling products with an expectation that we buy a new cell phone every 12 to 18 months and a new computer every 24 months we are f**d. The amount of resources and energy that it will take even to reuse electronics at the scale of sales that we’re seeing is huge.

So, until we tackle the elephant in the room and say, “Do we really need a new hardware product every 12 months? Do we really?”  That’s where we hear the screeching brakes, because that’s the core of their business model. Ultimately, they are going to need to change that. It wasn’t too long ago that we had a concept that if something was broken, it got repaired. And, now, you just discard it and get a new one, and this is especially true in the electronics sector.  So, there needs to be more creative thinking in terms of manufacturing that really tackles the issue of planned obsolescence.

Dharma: Next to me here is my 47-year-old pink rotary dial telephone. How long is it going to be before I have a computer or cell phone that has the convenience of modernism, but the durability of my pink rotary phone?

Casey: Realistically? To achieve that we need a huge change in design. We would need hardware platforms that can then receive software upgrades and hardware patches.  One of the reasons that your phone has worked so well for 47 years is that it roughly does the same thing. That can’t be said for mobile phones.  Fifteen years ago they were as big as shoebox. If we continue to have expectations of the growth in functionality then we need hardware that can be repaired and updated, with software being more regularly upgraded than hardware.  For cell phones, scarcity of materials will likely inform and slow down cell phone sales and lengthen product cycles before anything else will.

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Manufacturing, Policy