Who makes the Green Grade? 6 notebook computer makers considered

Share-leader HP slightly ahead of mobile PC rivals, but no vendor really leads in green-tech policies

Given that a growing number of businesses SAY they are including green criteria in their purchasing processes, I got to wondering about which vendor might be considered the greenest in various product categories. So, I'm going to poke around over the next few weeks to see what specific insight I can cover toward this end, in a series of "Green Grade" posts on different product segments. I'm starting with notebook products for two reasons:

  1. There are so many of them (Gartner recently reported that shipments grew 43 percent in the first quarter).
  2. People also care about this category personally (if you've got a teen going to college for the first time this fall, chances are you're considering which model to purchase).

I probably should pause here and say that there is nothing scientific about this post. It is based on resources readily available to anyone who is curious. And, any opinion in this blog is MY opinion, not one blessed by the ZDnet editorial gurus.

That said, I found a great resource on the Greenpeace web site on which I am (in large part) basing my opinions. It's their ongoing Guide to Greener Electronics, which is mainly concerned with consumer electronics and which I have highlighted here in the past. But a lot of the information is relevant for the notebook category. Based on Greenpeace's evaluation, here are how the top three share generators on its list stack up:

#1: Hewlett-Packard #2: Dell #3: Acer

The sad part is, though, that HP only scores a 4.9 out of a possible 10 points that Greenpeace awards, based on the following criteria: Chemicals used in its products, E-waste diposal policies, and Energy efficiency. Dell earns a 4.3 ranking and Acer earns a 4.1.

Based on the Greenpeace report, and my own ongoing coverage of these companies, here are the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of these three top notebook/netbook vendors.

HP

  • Strengths: Ready support for the revised Restriction on Hazardous

    Substances in electronics, which is used in the European Union to guide materials choices. HP has adopted restrictions on PVC vinyl plastics and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) that it hopes to have in place by 2015. More than 90 percent of its notebooks meet Energy Star 5 standards.

  • Weaknesses: According to Greenpeace, even though HP is a big proponent of individual producer responsibility, it needs to do more in the area of e-waste. The company's reuse and recycling rate was 17.5 percent in 2008; Greenpeace is looking for more information about what percentage of that amount is being incinerated. In 2009, HP recovered about 30,000 tons of hardware, or 3.6 million units.

Dell

  • Strengths: Dell slipped on the latest Greenpeace report, mainly because the organization is on the company's case for "backtracking" on its commitment to remove PVC and BFR material by the end of last year. It gained in the area of energy efficiency, where 59 percent of its notebooks are Energy Star 5-compliant. (In many cases, Dell notebooks use less than 5 watts in low-power mode.)
  • Weaknesses: Greenpeace is leery about Dell's ongoing e-waste policies because (apparently) the company has ratcheted back on what it is willing to share.

Acer

  • Strengths: The company has a goal of eliminating PVC and BFR materials from its mobile computing products (although not ALL products) by 2011. Reports a recycling rate of 29.8 percent for desktops and notebooks, although that is for Taiwan only. About 63 percent of its notebooks meet Energy Star 5.0
  • Weaknesses: Even though Acer rose on the May ranking, it lost a point because its materials plans don't extend to its myriad monitors. Acer gets dinged, as well, because even though it is growing share in the United States, its recycling policies are very confined to its home turf.

The area in which all three companies have done the most the fastest is energy efficiency, which isn't surprising given how many businesses are honed in on reducing electricity costs. The area to really watch carefully in the next year as a positioning statement, though, is e-waste, as more states embrace laws governing how to responsibly dispose of technology. That means you, as an IT manager, could officially be on the hook to figure out what to do with the stuff your ditching. E-waste very closely interrelates with what's inside the box, of course.

Right now, my nod goes to HP, although Dell is dogging this lead with innovative packaging and recycling policies.

Of course these three vendors aren't the only game in town. I chose to look at the stats for three other companies based on my knowledge of their past and potential market positions. (Again, I've listed these companies in order based on their order the Greenpeace analysis.)

Apple (4.9) - Scores most of its points on toxic chemicals; the company has already eliminated PVCs and BFRs from all products. But gets dinged for being relatively week on use of renewable energy and its greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals, as well as what it does with the recycled products it collects. (Apple plans a recycling rate of 50 percent by the end of this year.)

Toshiba (3.5) - Ouch. The company dropped from third to 14th (out of 17 companies) because it blew its self-picked deadline of April 2010 for clearing products of PVC and BFR. The irony is that some of its mobile products are the greenest in their class: The Portege 600 series is "PVC-free" (except for the AC adapter) and it has created a PVC-free designation called EcoMark that helps you figure this out quickly. Big points for energy efficiency, as well.

Lenovo (1.9) - The company is dead-last on the ranking. Again, it got dinged by Greenpeace for backtracking on PVC and BFR elimination (apparently it got too aggressive in its timeline, along with Toshiba and Dell).

The irony of all this is that if you look at the product rankings in the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, the two companies that dominate the Top 10 notebooks under the Gold (highest) level are, drum roll, Toshiba and Lenovo.

The tough thing about buying any product these days is that you have to consider not only the environmental impact of the particular technology you're buying, you also need to look at what the company marketing that product is doing in terms of its environmental impact.

So, that's why I'm going to highlight two different companies here: One company for overall impact and green credentials, and one to watch for sheer green design impact.

HP gets my vote for the strongest overall commitment to green-ness. And even through Greenpeace discounts its parent company's overall green policies, Toshiba absolutely dominates in terms of green design benchmarks that count.

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