LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - With its plethora of gadgets that become outdated almost as soon as they are sold, the consumer electronics industry is an unlikely champion of the environment.
But since information and communications technology is now estimated to cause more carbon pollution than aviation, and the European Union and other regulators are imposing ever stricter rules on toxic substances used in electronics, the industry has little choice but to act.
Ahead of next week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the biggest trade event of its kind, electronics firms are competing to outdo each other as environmentally friendly.
Alongside a throng of start-ups peddling solar backpacks, efficient wireless power or new ways to recycle, mainstream electronics firms will be touting their achievements in power saving in the face of rocketing oil prices and global warming.
Among those at the show putting pressure on reluctant converts to conform, Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) — the world’s most powerful retailer — is now asking suppliers to fill out a green practices survey before agreeing to restock products.
Smaller players at CES include GreenPlug with its technology that allows electronics devices to communicate with power sources to raise efficiency, while the NRG Dock offers solar recharging of personal communication devices.
Large-scale industry efforts to limit the polluting effects of the production, use and disposal of electronic goods are currently led by a handful of companies including Japanese electronics group Sony Corp (6758.T) and U.S. PC maker Dell Inc DELL.O.
Dell, the biggest supplier of computers to the U.S. market, says it aims to become the world’s greenest technology company. It is so far the only PC maker to offer free recycling of its computers without requiring new purchases.
Sony recently established a nationwide U.S. recycling program for consumer electronics, not just for its own products but for all electronics — although it is not free in all cases.
It also uses renewable energy at many of its offices, including 41 percent of the energy it consumes in Europe.
CES organizers are promising to make this year’s event the biggest carbon-neutral trade show there is, buying carbon offsets that will ensure trees are planted to help compensate for emissions related to the 140,000 trade visitors expected.
The Consumer Electronics Association, which will make a “significant proportion” of its tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue from the show, says it expects to spend about $100,000 on environmental offsets this year.
Green campaigners argue that the industry has a long way to go until it truly starts to limit the damage the electronics inflict on our ecosystem, including largely hidden factors such as flying components around the world for assembly.
“Buying some carbon offsets and biodegradable forks hardly begins to address the environmental impacts of this industry,” says Robin Schneider, vice chair of the Electronics Take Back Coalition, a U.S. recycling activist group.
“Unfortunately, most electronic gizmos are loaded with toxins, have short life spans and are not designed for recycling,” she added.
Industry analysts agree that longer product lifetimes are a crucial part of any green strategy for consumer electronics, although they go against manufacturers’ obvious short-term aims.
Jim Tully, a green IT analyst at research firm Gartner, says powerful telecoms operators, however, do have an interest in slowing down replacement cycles for mobile phones — which along with TVs are the world’s best-selling consumer gadgets.
“Whilst the equipment companies may not be happy about it, the operators want it,” he says. “Service providers don’t want customers throwing away phones because it opens up an opportunity for customers to switch allegiance.”
Until operators win more influence over handset makers, committed green consumers will be largely confined to helping the planet in smaller ways such as using power-management or energy-harvesting devices, a host of which will be shown at CES.
But the market is now ready, some analysts argue, for an explicitly green mainstream consumer electronics device, such as a PC, as awareness has risen and some sectors of the public are now prepared to pay a premium to help save the planet.
“The field is open for a vendor to lead in green products and company attributes. We are watching for products that move well beyond incremental energy efficiency or recyclability,” analyst Christopher Mines of research firm Forrester says.
A “bright green” PC, he wrote in a recent note, would be “built-to-last, enabling its user to avoid the quick replacement cycle that manufacturers thrive on and thus keep manufacturing and recycling impacts as low as possible.”
Editing by Phil Berlowitz