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Sep 12 2014

Greenpeace Report on IT Industry’s Eco Footprint

The booming IT gadgets market casts a huge environmental shadow. According to the Greenpeace study "Green Gadgets: Designing the Future," their production remains "inherently unsustainable" because it is both highly energy- and CO2-intensive – a problem that is further exacerbated through the use of considerable amounts of dirty energy and toxic substances as well as the dwindling life span of electronic goods that in turn creates mountains of e-waste. In other words, Greenpeace believes the IT industry still pursues a largely unsustainable business model, although the study concedes that there has been substantial progress in some areas.

For the purpose of this study, the researchers have focused on three key environmental aspects of IT production, namely the use of hazardous substances, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and the acquisition of raw materials. As it stands, the industry as a whole seems to have made considerable headway in some areas. The use of PVC and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), for example, has slumped – eight years ago, practically all vendors used these toxic substances to a larger or lesser extent, while today 55% of the gadgetry makers have eliminated them from smart- and feature phones. The news isn't quite as good for the PC arena – here, four fifths of the manufacturers continue to work with both PVC and BFRs, e.g. to insulate power cables. – Reducing power consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, in contrast, appears to be much more complicated. On the one hand, PCs and mobile devices are far more energy-efficient than they were a decade ago. On the other hand, the study tells us that building 'green' equipment only solves one part of the problem, but leaves another, potentially bigger issue untouched: On a per-device basis, more energy is used up in the production process than through actual usage. As a result, this process and its possible flaws have a much greater impact on a vendor's power consumption and resulting greenhouse gas emissions than one would assume offhand – the researchers quote a forecast from Juniper Research, according to which all mobile devices combined will produce 122 megatonnes, or 122 billion kilograms/268 billion pounds of CO2 emissions by 2017. That would exceed the carbon footprint of Belgium, with 60% of the total amount generated during production. Unsurprisingly, advancements in this area are comparatively rare; the situation is best illustrated by the fact that the authors praise companies that have made the first steps toward measuring their carbon footprint and issuing reports. – The acquisition of raw materials is another complex field of activity; here, problems result from unsatisfying recycling quotas (the study's top scorer reportedly uses "at least 5%" recycled plastics in its products) as well as from the fact that various metals and minerals required for equipment production stem from war zones.

Based on these findings, the Greenpeace researchers demand more transparency in production and supply chain alike, as it is essential for evaluating company policies, practices and supply chain emissions, including disclosure of hazardous discharges and waste of water for individual facilities. Moreover, they suggest the industry should follow Google's and others' example and build solar plants to cleanly power its entire production, again including the whole supply chain. On the whole, producers and suppliers should implement a "hazard-based approach" to supply chain emissions. Raw materials need to be sourced responsibly, packaging needs to be kept to a minimum and become sustainable, device lifespans need to grow, and discarded components and materials ought to be recycled. In addition, Greenpeace appeals to the IT industry to move away from a business model that induces an "over-consumption" of devices towards a more sustainable, service-oriented model, e.g. by offering upgrades for long-life products. The study argues that IT's innovative power offers the perfect position to create a future in which toxic-free gadgets are produced using sustainable materials and renewable energy, combined with a closed-loop system ensuring continuous recycling.

The entire 52-page study can be downloaded from the Greenpeace website in PDF format.

Conclusion: Politically charged as it is, the Greenpeace report on "Green Gadgets" provides valuable insights into the current state of environmentally sound IT production. Also, and contrary to what some might expect, it's surprisingly fair – the authors took care to list numerous significant achievements that have been made over the past decade. Along with these strengths, however, we also found a couple of limitations. Probably the most important of these is what you could call its 'brand orientation' – the focus clearly is on popular vendors that claim floor space at retail stores. Unfortunately, this means the report doesn't reflect the situation in the channel business, where infrastructure providers such as Fujitsu have a long history of manufacturing eco-friendly products that comply with standards like the European Union's RoHS and WEEE Directives – and do so in a sustainable, if improvable fashion. For more details, check out the pages devoted to Fujitsu's environmental policy and activities.


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