Greening the Electronics Industry: Progress, but in Fits and Starts

Greening the Electronics Industry: Progress, but in Fits and Starts

The Consumer Electronics Association this week unveiled its first industry-wide environmental sustainability report, looking at how electronics manufacturers are performing in five green categories. In a nutshell, the report puts the electronics industry on pace with just about every other sector: making progress, but more needs to be done.

The report looks at the environmental performance of 20 major electronics manufacturers, who represent roughly half of all consumer electronics on the market today. The report then assesses their operations across five categories: product design, energy efficiency, manufacturing efficiency, supply chain efficiency, and social responsibility.

Among the success stories from the report are relatively widespread waste-reduction plans: the report says that half of the companies interviewed were diverting 80 percent or more of their waste from landfills. Also notable was a reduction in energy usage: companies reported savings of anywhere from 5 to 25 percent in electricity use per million dollars of revenue, and similarly with greenhouse gas emissions, seven out of ten of the electronics manufacturers that reported emissions data have lowered their emissions intensity per dollar of revenue.

The sustainability report is loaded with examples of successes from companies like NEC, Intel, Dell, Best Buy and more; but although those success stories range from turning cafeteria waste into compost to removing toxic materials from the manufacturing process, it's still just a look at the 20 manufacturers who track and report environmental data.

Granted, when the global steel industry released its first sustainability reports, the numbers were similar -- the 2005 report covered only 42 companies in the industry. And there's no doubt that, especially with the rise of global legislation on electronics issues like RoHS and WEEE, more companies are looking more closely at their entire supply chain.

Parker Brugge, the CEA’s Vice President of Environmental Affairs and Industry Sustainability, spent some time with me on the phone last week to talk about the report and its findings. One of the key points he made about the admitted long, uphill road the industry is facing on its path to sustainability is that this report was both a learning process and a learning tool.

Among other things, he said, "we found that a number of companies are doing great things. Our hope with this report is that it educates other companies on how their competitors are doing this."

In an industry as competitive and secretive as tech, getting companies to disclose their performance and practices for environmental goals was no small feat, and Brugge said he sees this kind of disclosure as driving further improvements.

"It's exciting, because these companies are very competitive -- they want to do better," Brugge explained. "So when they see a Panasonic doing that with their TVs [a new Panasonic plasma TV uses 96 percent less energy than a model from 2000] ... these other companies say they want to do the same thing, to do better. I think that results in even better reports, just to show what other companies are doing."

Other key drivers for this kind of green innovation are consumer demand, especially now that energy use is a growing concern among buyers, as well as pressure from NGOs and legislatures to make their products less toxic and more recyclable.

Brugge and the electronics industry would obviously prefer not to face additional regulation -- he says that innovation, not regulation, is what drives the energy efficiency improvements of things like that Panasonic television -- from the outside looking in it seems that not only are further laws on e-waste and energy use inevitable, but a much-needed kick in the pants.

For an industry that focuses so closely on the next hot thing to the detriment of the next green thing, calls for improvement from NGOs (see Greenpeace's quarterly electronics scorecard and how it has pushed Apple to green its products in short order) or the government (like the recent GAO e-waste report and how that's leading Congress down the path of regulating exports of all types of electronics) are bringing environmental innovations to the design table.