RALEIGH — Mark Pierce of Lenovo was jolted in August when Greenpeace ranked the Chinese-American PC maker dead last for green credentials out of 14 consumer electronics brands. Pierce, Lenovo’s environmental chief, was duty-bound to fix the situation or risk the company’s fledgling U.S. image, it had recently opened new world headquarters in Morrisville.
He began meeting regularly with Greenpeace officials to determine what Lenovo needed to do. The company committed to phase out hazardous chemicals from all products by 2009 and initiated a global hardware recycling program. It worked. Within a year Lenovo had soared to the top of Greenpeace’s quarterly chart and has remained near the top since.
The intensity of that turnaround exemplifies the fervor of consumer-electronics makers to be green, or at least be considered so. For the first time, virtually all major brands including Dell, HP, Apple, Sony and Motorola are ramping up efforts to put cleaner, more efficient and more easily recyclable products in stores.
Apart from environmental benefits, the green migration is integral to marketing the brand and story of a company, said tech-stock analyst Brent Bracelin of Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore. It’s a way for companies to show they care about the Earth, society, tomorrow’s children and not just their own pockets, he said.
That makes Earth-friendly gear particularly vital to companies that target contemporary professionals. Without at least some green seal of approval, companies risk falling to nature-hater status and losing sales to competitors who more successfully emblazon marketing efforts with environmentalism.
For Lenovo, that threat came in its initial ranking from Greenpeace. “We listen to many stakeholders,” Pierce said. “But Greenpeace is certainly a very vocal one.” Other companies are also listening and reacting.
Dell last year announced new processors with 40 percent power savings and notebooks that automatically doze in a low-power state after 15 minutes of inactivity. The company also launched a free hardware recycling program, one of the most comprehensive in the world, and a Web site where consumers can check the power consumption of individual Dell products.
Rival HP followed in March with its own line of green hardware, among the first to meet new efficiency standards from the Environmental Protection Agency. HP claims its new Energy Star 4.0-rated power chords can trim $6 to $58 per PC off a household’s annual energy bill.
Lenovo jumped ahead again this month with new ThinkPad and 3000-series notebooks that use up to 47 percent less energy, according to the company. The PCs are also Energy Star 4.0-compliant, meaning they waste less than 20 percent of the power they consume.
That’s important to consumers on two levels. Lower energy use means less greenhouse gas emission, and that’s good for the planet. It also means potential savings on energy bills at a time when entertainment and home-office equipment gobble more power than ever.
Electronic devices — excluding major appliances — suck 10 percent to 15 percent of all household electricity in the United States, according to figures released last year by Ecos Consulting of Portland, Ore. For a typical North Carolina home, that’s about $100 to $108 annually, according to Progress Energy. And the cost is rising as the number of laptops, flat-panel TVs, cable boxes, game consoles, mobile phones and MP3 players in people’s homes increases.
“We’ve made great strides on the efficiency of refrigerators and washers but we’ve also seen this huge proliferation of smaller electronics,” said Jennifer Amann, consumer electronics expert for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington.
What most people don’t know, Amann said, is that consumer electronics use considerable energy when in standby mode or even turned off. That downtime flow maintains internal clocks, indicator lights, preference settings, remote control responsiveness and other features and accounts for about 40 percent of electronics power consumption, according to a separate Ecos report due out in September. Digital cable, DVR and TiVo boxes for example use roughly the same energy regardless of mode, according to the report.
Solid waste is also part of the green push.
Many electronics contain mercury and other harmful substances, but several big-name manufacturers are phasing out toxins such as lead, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Panasonic took the lead out of its plasma TVs recently. And Apple, a bit behind on its “greener” campaign, pledged this year to eliminate PVC and BFRs from its products. These materials are known to end up in landfills and can leach into ground water.
Greenpeace ranks the largest of the manufacturers each quarter based on their elimination of the worst hazardous substances, as well as their adoption of take-back and recycling policies to deal with discarded hardware.
Mobile phone maker Nokia last month took top spot from Lenovo, which slipped to No. 2, for eliminating the worst chemicals from many of its products.
Roger Kay, a computer industry analyst with Endpoint Technologies in Wayland, Mass., welcomes the focus on environment but is skeptical of its short-term impact on brand image.
Nearly every big consumer electronics maker has gone green in some way. So the practice has devolved somewhat from distinguishing brand to staying with the pack, he said.
Kay said the next opportunity is to release a product that is far and away an environmental leader, but doesn’t cost a premium. The latest Lenovo ThinkPads are considered among the best engineered laptops but cost anywhere from about $1,100 to more than $5,000. Panasonic’s lead-free Plasma TVs fall mostly in the same range.
Making green products more affordable is a tough manufacturing challenge, but a necessary one given consumers’ reluctance to pay more to be green. “You don’t want a tax to be a good citizen,” Kay said.
In the longer term, stricter government regulations will force companies to up their standards whether they like it or not. Various states including California are considering new power-efficiency requirements. And U.S. consumers will likely follow Europeans in demanding higher environmental standards. “It happened in Europe a decade ago,” said Kay.
Indeed, televisions and other electronics in Europe consume less energy. Many feature “cold off” buttons that cut all power without having to unplug the device.
Pierce of Lenovo agrees. He said the company’s product development strategy is based on rising environmental expectations from regulators, consumers and business customers and even investors.
He noted the rising number of investment groups focused on sustainable technologies and environmentally responsible products.
“Perceptions are a big deal,” he said.