Tech companies using green standards 'to greenwash products,' claims report

A report commissioned by Repair.org claims that hardware manufacturers are watering down green standards their own benefit, and warping them into a tool that drives sales at the expense of the environment.

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Green standards are meant to lead the IT industry, but according to a blistering report commissioned by Repair.org, electronics standards in the US have become too easy for manufacturers to meet, and firms are warping them into a tool that drives sales at the expense of the environment.

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The report, authored by Mark Schaffer, a well-regarded electronics engineer and consultant with 20 years of experience designing and manufacturing sustainable electronics, claims that tech companies are deliberately standing in the way of stronger green electronics standards in the US, and are systematically blocking attempts to promote longer-lasting devices.

Green standards, the report claims, should be drawn up by a balanced group of volunteer stakeholders, including representatives from major electronics producers. But the report asserts that manufacturers now "occupy a large number of seats on the standards boards," and "are abusing their position, diluting the standards to meet their existing products instead of designing leadership standards that encourage better products."

The report points to the new EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool -- a registry that buyers can use to determine the effect a product has on the environment) UL 110 mobile phone standard:

In late July of 2017, the first batch of phones were registered to EPEAT for the new UL 110 mobile phone standard. Of the 8 devices registered, 7 claimed EPEAT gold. LG claimed one silver product, while Samsung claimed a gold rating for Galaxy S8 line and Apple claimed gold ratings for the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 6s, 6s Plus and SE. The gold-dense scoring line-up is troubling in a standard so new. A properly-developed leadership standard should start off with devices just barely able to achieve the bronze level--as the initial computer standard did in 2006. The fact that two of the largest producers of mobile phones were immediately able to achieve gold designations for their existing products indicates that the leadership standard substantially reflects the status quo. It doesn't lead--and the new criteria isn't driving device design in a more sustainable direction.

Another example in the report of EPEAT failure relates to Apple's 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina display.

In 2012, Apple released the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Historically, the MacBook Pro line had been modular, repairable, and upgradeable. The 2012 Retina MacBook Pro, however, shipped with a proprietary SSD, non-upgradeable RAM, and a glued-down lithium-ion battery--choices that limit the lifespan of the laptop and make it more difficult to recycle. Yet, the laptop was still able to garner an EPEAT "Gold" rating, despite the standard's stipulation that devices be 'upgradeable with commonly available tools' and that batteries should be easy and safe to remove. When criticized for the Retina's inclusion on the registry, EPEAT said that its product verification committee had determined that products were upgradeable if they had an externally accessible port--which all laptops have. The committee also declined to define what 'easy and safe' meant for component removal. The move effectively gutted the modularity criteria in the standard--and the language re-interpretation made it much easier for products to achieve a 'Gold' rating.

The report's key findings are as follows:

  • Manufacturers and other IT industry members--including chemical and plastics trade groups--hold so many positions on green electronics standards boards that they can resist leadership standards and instead approve criteria they can easily achieve.
  • The cycle of innovation in tech radically outpaces the development cycle for electronics standards. For example, the current 1680.1 standard for computers includes design criteria that were written over a decade ago. Revising standards takes way too long.
  • Manufacturers have consistently blocked meaningful criteria that would influence their product design, including any incentives to encourage design for repair or recycling.
  • The current development process favors members from well-funded organizations. Participating in the standards development requires an investment of time and money--which often deters participants with fewer resources, such as non-profit organizations, small businesses, and academic experts. Manufacturers drag out the development process, bleeding non-profits of scarce resources.
  • Regulatory bodies should balance the representation of standards boards to avoid a process that can be commandeered by manufacturers' representatives.

The report concludes by stating that green standards in the US "have become a complicated way for manufacturers to greenwash products that have a devastating environmental impact and pat themselves on the back for business as usual."

"Electronics-makers can make products that are both cutting edge and long-lasting. Instead, they are pumping the market with disposable products that can't be repaired and can't easily be recycled," says iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens. "Green standards in the US should promote better, longer-lasting products--but tech companies won't let that happen. They're short-changing consumers and the environment."

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