Computers' Elusive Eco Factor

There are several ways to measure the environmental impact of computers, but many consumers ignore them and PC makers have reason not to care

Consumers who want to weigh how their purchases affect the environment have plenty of guidelines and seals of approval to choose from for everything from cars to tissue paper. But finding out just how eco-friendly a computer is can be a bigger chore.

There are several competing yardsticks, each considering a different aspect of a computer's greenness, be it energy consumption, use of toxic materials, or how easily it can be recycled. None by itself provides a complete picture. And since consumers aren't demanding environmentally friendly computers in large numbers, makers of those machines have little incentive to market PCs that way.

Consider the U.S. government's Energy Star system, which tells how much a qualifying item will cut utility bills. Used for products ranging from air conditioners to washers and dryers, the program helped save $14 billion in energy costs last year and reduced the country's greenhouse-gas emissions by an amount equal to that of 25 million cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Business Relies on Energy Star

But applying Energy Star ratings to computers isn't so straightforward. Only 1 in 4 machines qualifies for the government's recently tightened system, Energy Star 4.0, introduced in July (, 5/14/07). And by and large, businesses purchasing machines in large numbers tend to pay closer attention to Energy Star than consumers, who typically purchase PCs one at a time. The EPA estimates an Energy Star-rated computer will save about $103 a year, or less than $9 a month in electricity costs.

When Greenpeace International started publishing its twice-a-year Guide to Greener Electronics, it made headlines for criticizing Apple (AAPL), saying the company's iPod music players and Macintosh computers could be made in a more eco-friendly fashion while patting Dell (DELL) and Nokia (NOK) on the back for committing to eliminate hazardous materials from their products (, 3/29/07). Apple recently announced changes that improved its score. Greenpeace's latest target is Sony (SNE), which is being criticized for recycling policies, and currently rates at the bottom of Greenpeace's A-F grading scale.

Yet Greenpeace grades don't tell the whole story either. Its methodology considers manufacturing and disposal—a machine's beginning and end, if you will. But it doesn't cover a PC's power consumption while it's in use. "Ours is a measurement of a company's policies and their words to us and to the public through their Web sites, and we hold them accountable by testing their equipment," says Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace's Toxics campaign in Washington. "The computer industry is an enlightened one in terms of its fear of public and legal accountability."

Consumer Focus: Up-Front Costs

No computer maker wants the negative PR associated with a failing grade, but they've also got to consider consumers' demands, which don't always equate to greener PCs. Most Americans say they care about the environment, but behave otherwise at the cash register. In the latest Green Gauge survey conducted by Gfk Roper Consulting and released last month, 87% of American consumers say they are seriously concerned about the environment, while 79% say a company's environmental practices affect the products they buy.

Yet only 4 in 10 Americans say they're willing to pay more for a product that benefits the environment.

More than half—55%—say they don't believe environmentally safe products yield any real benefit, and nearly three-quarters say such goods are too pricey. To some degree, they're right. Just adding a more energy-efficient power supply—the part of a PC that regulates electric use—adds to the up-front cost, which consumers consider more important than the lifetime cost of owning the PC, says Pat Tiernan, vice-president for social and environmental responsibility at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).

How much more can a power-efficient desktop cost to build? Tiernan won't say. But a power supply that's efficient can cost a manufacturer as much as 30% more than one that isn't. That, in turn, can add as much as $20 to the cost of building a computer, says Ryan Rasmussen, an environmental consultant in Portland, Ore., who runs the 80 PLUS program, an industry initiative aimed at encouraging PC makers to adopt more efficient power supplies. "We've seen some smaller companies who've chosen to absorb that cost, but most of them have to pass it on to their customers," he says. And consumers generally place a lot of weight on the purchase price when making their buying decision.

Industry Devises Own Guidelines

That's a mistake, Rasmussen contends. "In most cases with the power savings, they'll make it back within a few years," he says. Moreover, since the machines are running cooler, there's less chance of failures caused by high heat, resulting in lower maintenance costs. Over the next five years, Energy Star 4.0 will save $1.8 billion in power costs and cut annual greenhouse-gas emissions by an amount equal to that of 2.7 million cars, according to EPA estimates.

But it's hard to bring that message across to consumers intent on getting the best deal on the most powerful PC they can afford. "I wish this was as easy to communicate to a customer as the miles-per-gallon ratings on cars," says David Lear, director of regulatory and environmental compliance at Dell. "But the reality is that it involves so much more than that."

That's not stopping the computer industry from coming up with its own green PC seal of approval, known as EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool). EPEAT was designed by manufacturers and environmental groups to help institutions such as governments, schools, and businesses pick eco-friendly PCs. Computers submitted for EPEAT ratings have to first meet 23 required criteria covering hazardous materials, recycling, and power consumption. That scores them a bronze rating. To nab a silver or gold, they have to meet at least half or 75%, respectively, of a second list of 28 more rigorous criteria. Companies such as Toshiba (TOSBF), Dell, and HP combined have 11 systems that merit gold ratings.

Not Aiming for Consumers

But these by and large are all aimed at institutional buyers, rather than consumers shopping online or at Best Buy (BBY). The EPEAT system, as comprehensive as it is, isn't really aimed at consumers, says Scott Case, manager of the EPEAT program for the Green Electronics Council, the nonprofit that oversees the ratings system. "EPEAT focuses on the institutional sector because that is the point in the economy where there is large consolidated purchasing taking place," he says. "These are governments or companies putting large amounts of money on the table."

Why not apply EPEAT to consumer-oriented PCs? Consumers want the latest in multimedia features, storage, and processing power. And building a PC that can meet the stringent requirements of the government's Energy Star program—on which EPEAT's power consumption criteria are based—is no simple trick. "Consumers want killer graphics cards and second hard drives, and other features that tend to draw a lot of power," says John Frey, HP's manager for corporate environmental strategies.

On top of that, buyers will still look for the cheapest option. "We ask people if they're interested in a more environmentally friendly product and if they would be willing to pay more for one, and generally the answer is yes," Frey says. "But when we look at buying behavior, it doesn't align with those statements. When they reach the point of purchase, price is still everything."

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