How Green is Your Label?

featured-aeiforaIn the ever increasing landscape of a technology driven world, a key marketplace differentiator for manufacturers on a wide range of products is environmental sustainability. By 2015, over 100 Billion units of electronic goods will be shipped worldwide and corporate environmental sustainability initiatives from manufacturers are expected to have a major impact on their delivery. Major drivers include not just Harry Homeowner buying a new TV or smart phone but corporate policy, business to business transactions, and government procurement policies all driven by a strong desire to reduce environmental impact. This is so prevalent that the certification body UL recently compiled a white paper outlining the verification of environmental sustainability in the electronics marketplace as a guideline to electronics manufacturers. So much of what the technology industry does has such an influential impact on everyday life that taking an overview look at this report and others like it is worth the while.

As the report indicates, one of the major influences is the fact that consumers (public, private and corporate) of technology are not only concerned with product specific attributes regarding environmental performance, but also broader impacts that the entire life cycle brings to the table. This includes, in some cases, a wide lens on a manufacturer’s overall business practices, operations and core values as buyers increasingly gravitate towards manufacturer’s that are demonstrated leaders in environmental stewardship.

Quite often, however, is the challenge for the technology manufacturing sector not knowing what to do or where to start. Selecting the right product environmental sustainability strategy continues to increase in complexity within the marketplace. If you have been a continuous reader of many of my past articles, you have read about efforts by some corporate leaders such as Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Cisco (to name a few) to look at their business practices and supply chains to reduce their overall carbon footprint. These titans have had the opportunity to look at not only the public relations of environmental stewardship but the benefits to their bottom lines.

In the Information Communications Technology (ICT) industry, we have seen the sale of electronic durable goods just in the United States double within a ten year period. Most of this has been on the personal electronics side with the average household now having around 24 electronic devices with smart phones making up the majority. Businesses and other commercial environments including healthcare, governmental and education markets, however, have seen a string of other innovative and disruptive electronic devices flood the market lately, each offering increased functionality and ease of use, continues to add to the mix in an increasingly strong way. If you were at the recent InfoComm trade show in Las Vegas this past June, you saw hundreds of thousands of these devices.

On the upside, that is great news for the ICT industry that makes and distributes a lot of these goods on one hand, but as I have also discussed in previous articles, the downside is a wave of used electronics is also hitting the market in the form of e-waste, many of these may be resold elsewhere, most will be discarded representing 2.4 million tons room in the landfill. Sadly only about 25 percent will actually be collected for recycling leaving about 1.8 million to remain buried under the dirt to leach into groundwater and rendering land unusable for centuries.

In addition to these challenges, a rise in energy consumption has also been illustrated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has nearly doubled for electronics use in the past 30 years. This is offsetting many major gains in efficiencies of building systems such as HVAC, daylight harvesting and electrical systems. This increase is not only a result of “built-in” or resident systems, but a direct influence of the Bring Your Own Device mentality now staunchly built into our world.

These challenges, and others, are what is driving consumer demand for more environmentally sustainable electronic devices higher up the “gotta haves.” Additionally increasing regulatory directives, including the European RoHS (2002/95/EC, 2001/65/EU) Directive and the International Green Construction Code, among others, have set high standards for compliance for power management and the restricted use of caustic materials such as lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium. As a result most products sold today in the electronics industry are RoHS compliant or meet minimum power demand requirements.

Another significant driver with sheer volume demand is in governmental procurement policies. For example in the U.S., under Presidential Order 13514, government agencies are encouraged to purchase products that are registered with the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) rating system with corresponds to around 6 trillion dollars spent.

Manufacturers are not shying away from doing this on their own either. Industry initiatives have seen a rise in supporting more sustainable electronic products including the Consumer Electronics Association, National Cable & Telecommunications Association and many others. On the consumer side we have seen a rise in meeting Energy Star 3.0 efficiency levels, resulting in an estimated savings of $1.5 billion in energy annually. Recently in our own industry the Sustainable Technology Environments Program (STEP™) has been expanding and changing working on a STEP™ rating for manufacturers through the STEP Foundation that would be a TIA TR-42 standard that follows in sync with the UL880 Standard for Sustainability for Manufacturing Organizations (look for more on this as it develops).

Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups are also involved as quite often they are key watchdogs of the chemicals and energy used in the manufacturing process. Most often they are interested in the end-of-life aspects, the material waste, and supply chain or electronics manufacturers. NGOs such as Responsible Recycling (R2) and e-Stewards have developed standards that detail proper recycling and handling of electrics at the end of useful life including with avenues for recycling and reuse of devices.

One of the additional drivers of the environmentally sustainable technology path is the consumer — especially the millennial generation, if you red last month’s article you hopefully paid attention that this generation is demanding more and more that their places of employment bring an “a-game” to the idea of sustainability. This generation in particular has grown up with electronics pervasive to every aspect of their life but they also have more of a social and ecological conscience than other generations. They use this technology (smart phones) with apps like GoodGuide, Rippi or Commute Greener to navigate their environment. They also seem to have more of a penchant for spending disposable cash on technology as well often with environmental concerns at the forefront of their mind when making the purchase. They are extremely important as they will represent 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. This age bracket is very comfortable in the world of the Internet of Everything and expects everything to be connected creating a fervent demand for technology products but with a conscience.

With these drivers manufacturers need to look at what attributes of their product line and corporation they should be focused on. These attributes can include the product itself — materials used, packaging, energy consumption, etc — or if the product comes from a renewable resource or recycled content. Also, does the product contain hazardous materials (back to RoHS) or volatile organic compounds? What is its durability and expected useful life? Are any of the components reusable after the product has reached its end-of-life?

Other attributes may be how the product is actually made — the process. Are there hazardous by products of the manufacturing process? Is there waste that can’t be recycled back into the process or recycled to other manufacturers? Does the manufacturing process contaminate natural resources or expel green house gas emissions? How does a product get stored or transported? These questions combined with the actual product itself contribute to its life-cycle and include materials sourcing, distribution, maintenance, and end-of-life considerations.

Additionally corporate-specific attributes contribute beyond the product itself to the core values of the electronics manufacturer including policies and actions it takes towards environmental stewardship. This goes beyond the walls of the plant and extends into the community and possible the world as we have seen with Wal-Mart’s sustainable supply chain initiatives. Public perception plays the key role here and how the company presents their actionable plan will certainly have impacts. The key for electronics manufacturers is to be clear in what they mean by “sustainability” lest they be labeled as green washing their products.

With the understanding of these attributes and key drives to what this matters, the UL white paper helped to identify paths that manufacturers can take for verification of environmental sustainability. The biggest one is the eco-label product certification. Just fewer than 450 eco-labels are used worldwide that seeks to substantiate a manufacturer’s claim of stewardship. Unfortunately, like any standard, not all are equal and need some vetting to understand them.

Types of standards include those that deal with one attribute of a product such as power management/power savings feature while others look at a broad spectrum of attributes. Single attribute eco-labels are helpful if a consumer is looking for a product that delivers on one particular aspect such as recycled content, sustainably managed forest certified wood products or low VOC paint, for instance. A multi-cast approach gives a broader view of a product looking to showcase the product overall as good for the environment. How these labels and standards are developed also tell a lot about the truthiness of the claims. Having an ANSI/ISO standard, for instance, gives recognition that the process was open and public leading to more credibility with the consumer. Having a standard that is regularly reviewed and developed in that public forum also bolsters its credibility. How the eco-label standard is adjudicated is also a driving factor in its worthiness. For instance, was it verified by an independent third party or on the honor system with the manufacturer? Depending on the label, this can have good or bad consequences. Because of this, eco-labels that are based on open standards over a multitude of attributes, verified by third parties tend to be more believable by consumers.

For example, Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) provides a comprehensive look at a products environmental foothold cradle to cradle and has been verified by third party entities. These tend to address many of the attribute listed above and are categorized as Type III eco-labels as defined under ISO 14025.This type of eco-label is the most informative for consumers and differ from the label types in their comprehensiveness. Type I labels, for instance, relate to a specific environmental standard whereas Type II labels are self-declarations of compliancy or benefit without third party verification.

With these labels environmental claims validation becomes a major factor in their perceived validity. Often manufacturers will have claims verified by third parties as a result of a demand by a buyer or to be proactive in making sure a claim can be substantiated before questioned. Type III labels require this validation making it an easier choice for consumers to follow. In addition to the initial validation testing, manufacturers may request or be subjected to additional audits of their claims especially if there are complaints or concerns or if laws and policies change.

More specific to electronics is the EPEAT rating system which looks at electronics throughout its entire life cycle. This rating system follows the IEEE 1680 family of environmental assessment standards and the validation tests are performed by specific product registration entities against these requirements. Currently electronics such as monitors, computers, and imaging equipment are listed and more categories are added as demand arises.

Originally funded by the EPA, the Green Electronics Council now operates and maintains the EPEAT system which has become the de facto rating for electronics purchases for Federal, state and local governments as well as other major market sectors such as healthcare and education.

So as manufacturers continue to move on this, many avenues are available. The challenge is the rapid development of new products into the marketplace, competitive pricing environments and the intentional reduction in product life cycles (Just ask Apple). Electronic manufacturers looking to stay competitive and profitable can benefit from a more holistic approach to sustainability. This isn’t about jumping on the band wagon but looking inward to change culture, drive innovation, and generate loyal customers who are increasingly seeking out sustainable products.