Are Big High-Tech Companies Green Hypocrites?

Companies may promote a green message, but environmentalists remain skeptical.


April 22, 2008 — -- Green sells, whether the product in question is a hybrid car or a laptop computer. Tech firms know this.

Apple has a "My Greener Apple" campaign--lauded as a huge success among ecology-conscious Apple customers. Microsoft boosted its green image last year when it sponsored Live Earth, a series of concerts dedicated to combating climate change. And here's Larry David and Cheryl Hines of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasmin an MSN-sponsored environmental message video.

Nintendo showed its verdant tendencies last fall when it iintroduced a new Nintendo DS game for kids called Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol. Nintendo describes Chibi-Robo in a press release as "one of the first games based on the growing environmental movement." In the game, you are a robot that battles toxic Smoglings by planting flowers and building park equipment.

Trying to Put One Over on Us?

Now, some technology companies that tout their broad efforts to combat climate change and reduce e-waste are under fire from environmental watchdog groups. The critics say that companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Nintendo still produce too many toxic gadgets and don't do enough to live up to their green pledges.

"Being green is more than a press release," says Zeina Al-Hajj, complaint coordinator for Greenpeace International. "You need to do more than just promote the concept of combating climate change--you need to actually do it as a company."

Earlier this year, Nintendo and Microsoft ranked near the bottom among 18 tech firms that Greenpeace rated for its "global policies and practices on eliminating harmful chemicals and on taking responsibility for their products once they are discarded by consumers."

Others faring poorly in Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics were TV makers Panasonic, Philips, and Sharp.

Is the iPhone Toxic?

In Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics, Apple received much better marks than Microsoft and Nintendo for making green gadgets, but it doesn't escape the environmentalists' green thumb's down on some criteria.

In laboratory tests analyzing components inside the iPhone, Greenpeace found that device contains hazardous chemicals including brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and hazardous polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs), two chemicals that Apple had promised to stop using by the end of 2008. Greenpeace discusses its findings in this video.

In a 2007 open letter posted to the Apple Web site, Steve Jobs stated, "Apple is ahead of, or will soon be ahead of, most of its competitors on environmental issues." When Apple released the iPhone, however, Greenpeace and the Center for Environmental Health deemed the product a step in the wrong direction.

By comparison, according to Greenpeace, Nokia products are totally PVC free, and Motorola and Sony Ericsson have handsets on the market with BFR-free components. Greenpeace published its study last October; the full report can be read online.

Greenwashing Label Hurts

Many firms with green initiatives find that they're damned if they do go green and damned they don't, according to Kristina Skierka of Bite Communications' clean-tech practice, an expert in green marketing.

"The challenge for some companies with a green message is avoiding being criticized for what they are not doing," Skierka says. Though some companies are legitimately criticized for pretending to embrace environmentally responsible behavior, she says, some well-intentioned companies end up being unfairly labeled as "greenwashers"--eco-phonies who conceal environmentally unfriendly practices beneath a veneer of Earth-friendly rhetoric.

In Skierka's view, fear of being labeled a greenwasher prevents many comfpanies from pursuing their environmentally beneficial business practices more aggressively and visibly.

For its part, Nintendo recycles 70 percent of its waste and has created "green procurement standards" that prevent vendors from using banned substances such as lead and mercury.

Apple says that it has significantly reduced the amount of toxins in its computers (an achievement Greenpeace acknowledges) and that it sponsors an aggressive component recycling program.

Microsoft--along with Dell, Google, IBM, and Intel--formed the Climate Savers Computing Initiative (CSCI), which works with the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Wildlife Fund, and other organizations to tackle the problem of global warming.

Greenpeace's biggest beef with Microsoft and Nintendo involves the game consoles the two companies sell. The ecology organization says that both companies continue to use too many hazardous substances in manufacturing the consoles and don't have adequate takeback and recycling programs for obsolete models.

Guilty but Getting Better

"Sure, some of our members are guilty of greenwashing," says Jennifer Boone Bemisderfer, spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), a trade association representing more than 2200 companies that make consumer electronics. "But lessening our environmental impact is a process and something we are committed to."

Earlier this year, the CEA promoted its 2008 International CES trade show as "green," promising a reduction of the show's carbon footprint as well as promotion of sustainable, energy-efficient practices. It has also launched a Web to help consumers find a place to recycle their old electronic gear and reduce their energy consumption.

Responses to the CEA's efforts, thus far, have ranged from accusations of greenwashing to applause for taking a meaningful step in the right direction.

"So far we aren't seeing much action to back up the rhetoric," says Sam Haswell, communications director for the Rainforest Action Network, who is careful not to single out any specific company. He adds, "We are not looking for every opportunity to slam a company for being green hypocrites. But at the same time, we are trying to make it harder for companies to fool the public."

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