The Greening of Consumer Electronics

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Gerry Broome / AP

Barrie Kutlik works in the computer-assembly area at the new Dell plant in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Polluters such as coal power plants and automobiles have shouldered the brunt of the attention on climate change. It helps that you can actually see them spewing black exhaust. But people often forget that when they plug in their home electronics — whether it's a jumbo flat-screen TV or an iPod — the electricity that juices those devices has a carbon footprint too. As the amount of electronics in our homes continues to increase — half of American households now own three TVs, up from 11% in 1975 — it becomes more and more important that they are energy efficient. Ditto the amount of plastic, metal and other raw materials — often toxic and too often non-recyclable — that go into making our PCs and stereos.

Few consumers buy iPhones or Blackberrys with an eye toward energy efficiency, and most wouldn't know where to begin recycling a used laptop. But that's beginning to change, thanks largely to initiatives coming from within the consumer electronics industry itself — with a significant push from environmentalists. A new report by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) found that the industry's top performers managed to reduce electricity use 5% to 25% per $1 million in revenue over the past three or four years. Other companies within the industry are managing to reduce their carbon emissions per million dollars of revenue or by cutting emissions outright. And the best are doing even more — the $56 billion computer maker Dell announced in August that it had gone fully "carbon neutral," which is about as green as you can get. "We look at environmental responsibility holistically," says Tod Arbogast, Dell's director of sustainability. "The material we place in our products, how we make them, has an impact from the beginning to the end of its life span" — and even beyond that.

That attitude hardly emerged overnight. For the past few years, Greenpeace has been ranking and publishing electronics companies' greenness based on how toxic their products are, the efficacy of their recycling policies and their impact on the climate. (The Finnish cell-phone company Nokia holds the top spot, while Nintendo and Microsoft lag at the bottom.) The public scolding has helped prompt electronics makers to start changing product design and production — and encourage a private shift among electronics-industry workers, who, like many Americans, are gradually focusing attention on the environmental value of their work. Their bosses have noticed. "We're all citizens of the world, and everyone wants to work for an employer who leaves the world a better place," says Gary Shapiro, CEO of the CEA. "We do want to keep employee turnover down."

A company's efforts can be as simple as improving the energy efficiency of the products it sells — which also benefits the bottom line, since energy costs remain volatile. That's especially germane to big-power products, like the microprocessing chips that run desktop computers. Shapiro points to Intel, whose new microprocessors are designed to use 40% less energy to generate 40% more power than the previous generation of chips — just 18 months old. Dell itself has rolled out a new desktop that is up to 70% more efficient than the average PC — an attractive quality for server farms, the computer banks that make up the backbone of the Internet, which have grown increasingly energy hungry in recent years. Reducing energy consumption does a lot for carbon emissions — but even more for the balance sheets of IT companies. "The total cost of powering a server over its lifetime is beginning to outpace the cost of the computer itself," says Arbogast. "Customers are going to demand innovation on this — for the environment and for efficiency."

Ultimately, both of those conditions will need satisfying before the electronics industry can go deep green. Companies like Dell — which sources one-fifth of its power from renewable resources and offsets the rest — will go green of their own accord, and customers may reward them for it. Other companies will need encouragement — like the system in place in Japan, where the ambitious levels of efficiency achieved by industry leaders are used to force the bottom of the table to catch up. For his part, Shapiro prefers "the carrot to the stick," pointing out that energy efficiency has been increasing, even without strong mandatory standards. But as our dependence on consumer electronics grows, we can't afford to let the industry fall behind. "If everyone comes together, you can build a robust infrastructure for efficiency and lower costs," says Arbogast. "Everyone can benefit."

(Click here for the photo essay "This Fragile Earth.")

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