Self-justification or denial? Consumer electronics industry updates sustainability info

(Updated to include comment from CEA's environmental communications director.)We could debate until we are green in the face whether or not technology hurts the cause of the environment -- because of the energy it uses and waste impact -- or whether it is the ultimate tool that will allows companies and consumers alike to move toward more sustainable living habits.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

(Updated to include comment from CEA's environmental communications director.)

We could debate until we are green in the face whether or not technology hurts the cause of the environment -- because of the energy it uses and waste impact -- or whether it is the ultimate tool that will allows companies and consumers alike to move toward more sustainable living habits.

Needless to say, there's a lot of self-justification going on within the high-tech industry every day, and the big technology players -- from IBM and Cisco to Dell and Hewlett-Packard to Intel and Advanced Micro Devices -- are constantly trying to outdo each other when it comes to environmental impact, energy efficiency, water consumption stewardship, recycling of electronic waste and community outreach.

Now, it is the Consumer Electronics Association's turn to trumpet its members' progress on this front -- as the number of these gadgets multiple at a frightening rate. Just this week, for example, Accenture released a survey suggesting an explosion of consumer buying intentions this year for three-dimensional televisions, tablet consumers and e-readers.

In the interest of keep ahead of the conversation, the association has just published the CEA 210 Sustainability Report, which reviews its member companies activities around everything ranging from sustainable packaging and e-cycling to sustainability facilities management, product design, energy efficiency and green transportation options.

Here are some major high-level metrics that are discussed in the report, which is about 50 pages long.

  • In the United States, sales of desktops, laptops and displays certified under the EPEAT program increased 2009 to 48.5 million units. (The official tally over the four years that initiative has been in place was 317 million units sold, as of last September.)
  • Nine of the 10 largest consumer electronics companies have been reporting their carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project since 2007. (Note to self: research the hold-out here.) All of them produce sustainability reports using the framework from the Global Reporting Initiative.
  • More than 27,000 consumer electronics devices meet the Energy Star requirements for energy efficiency set out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Energy consumption and power management are increasingly a focus of innovators in the consumer electronics category according to the report. Two companies that are mentioned by name: Analogix, which has developed an ultra-low power High-Definition Multimedia Interface for transferring content from media gadgets over to TVs and displays, and STMicroelectronics, which is making a generation of chips designed to reduce the power consumption requirements of things such as set-top boxes or lighting.
  • The consumer electronics industry now has established more than 5,000 locations in the United States to collect technology and electronic waste. Something like 200 million pounds of electronics were diverted from landfills in 2009 alone. Internally, consumer electronics companies are addressing the solid waste generated by their operations. Panasonic, as an example, has a zero waste-to-landfill goal set for 2018. It has already reached this status for its operations in Japan.

So, I realize that this is sort of a tangential discussion, but as I was reading the sustainability report I couldn't help thinking about the environmental impact of that huge trade show that the Consumer Electronics Association is hosting in Las Vegas this week.

I know there are a lot of green products there, which I have featured in my unofficial CES greentech guide, but how green is holding a huge trade show in the middle of the desert? I'm not alone in asking this question. In fact, virtual event producer On24 is taking big-time aim at what it describes as the green 'spin' associated with the mammoth trade show, and with the CEA's marketing of the show as the greenest trade show. Its marketing slogan: "The world's coolest tradeshow is also the greenest."

One could debate the semantics of this, honestly, and I can't really blame CEA for using what was, in fact, an award it received from someone else. But On24 has worked up some estimates of the environmental impact of holding CES as a virtual trade show rather than as in-person event. Its estimates assume that there will be 125,000 people attending CES this week. Here's what could be saved, On24 says:

  • 179,000 tons of carbon emissions, or 940,000 trees
  • 1.4 million pounds in "waste" (whatever that is)
  • 2 million pieces of paper, because the documents used for the trade show would be digital

Will this stop people from attending? I think not, but it sure doesn't hurt to ask the question.

Tim Doyle, senior manager, environmental communication, also had this observation after he read this post:

"One fact I'd like to point out: CES saves more than 540 million in business trips that attendees otherwise would have taken. If attendees did not attend they would make an estimated 235,931  business trips covering 962 million miles. Therefore, International CES helps to save more than 540 million miles."

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