Computing ecolabels

Posted on June 12, 2007

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A story about a new ecolabel for a budget UK airline caught my eye this week. I like the graphics but also the multifactor approach (they haven’t tried to reduce complex issues down to a single green tick).

A scheme that gives aircraft ‘eco-labels’ showing how much noise they make and how much carbon dioxide they emit was launched today by budget airline Flybe in an attempt to change the focus of the green travel debate. The airline industry has been under the cosh from environmentalists who say the growing popularity of low-cost travel is driving up emissions unnecessarily.

Today, Flybe’s chief executive, Jim French, said the company acknowledged that human activity, including air travel, was contributing to global climate change.

And he said the Exeter-based airline, which operates out of 56 airports in the UK and Europe, was committed to being “low cost … but not at any cost”.

This led me to think about ecolabeling (wikip) for sustainable computing. An ecolabel is two things: it is a branding device and it is evidence of an accreditation system involving verifiable and meaningful standards. The Flybe model is in house, but they encourage their competitors to adopt their model. I particularly like the systems approach where a complete flight cycle is considered (looks somewhat like a high school text water cycle diagram).

As TreeHugger notes: “Green marketing is tough” .

As green becomes more and more popular, more and more companies want a piece of the green pie, and consumers get more and more savvy about what’s out there and what “green” really means. The combination can make it tricky for brands and companies who’re trying to break in to the green market and earn a good green reputation: overdo it, and risk looking like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon; underdo it, and risk getting washed out in a sea of green companies employing savvy marketing.

I would like a system that a reasonably savvy computing professional could use to choose between various shades of green options (see Green RFP thread).

The NZ Govt rates ecolabels (as does the EU Consumers Union):

What is an “ecolabel”? A very broad definition is – a logo or common label that seeks to inform about the environmental and/or social sustainability benefits of a product or supplier, and has been approved for use by an independent third party. “Environmental claims” or “green claims” are broader terms that include supplier self-claims and use of logos or symbols that do not require third-party approval.

They continue:

Ecolabels now cover a very wide range of significance, product coverage, reliability and meaning. This has created some confusion for buyers seeking to contribute to genuine reduction of environmental impact from products.

Under the motto ‘walking the talk’, the NZ government’s Ministry for the Environment runs the Govt3 programme thatEnvironmental Choice NZ helps central government agencies become more sustainable. Its section on computing leads me to the recommendation that we buy products that “have an Environmental Choice NZ license (EC–26–04 Personal Computers – www.enviro-choice.org.nz)”. The Environmental Choice system is described as the premier type of ecolabel: a “Type I ecolabel”. It is unfortunate, then, that among the mulch, hand detergents and carpets, there are no computers listed.

So, what are some of the ecolabels in computing?

The most widely known is the Energy Star system (also seen on fridges etc). Established in 1992, and recognised by 40% of the American public, the system aims to reduce energy use through the promotion of energy efficient products.

EPEAT three colours

The EPEAT system, partially funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, evaluates computer desktops, laptops, and monitors based on 51 environmental criteria (summary) (including energy star compliant). All EPEAT registered products must meet 23 mandatory environmental criteria. An additional 28 optional criteria are used to determine whether products earn EPEAT Bronze, Silver, or Gold recognition. In January 2007, President Bush signed an Executive Order requiring all federal government purchases of electronic products to be EPEAT-registered.

This month the EPEAT adminstration and Dell annouced “Dell First to Offer EPEAT Gold Notebook“. Dell adds that all of the Dell products meet all the mandatory criteria and more than 75 percent of the optional criteria.Europe's flower

In Europe the “flower” is a voluntary scheme used help consumers “to actively help to protect the environment by buying products that inflict less damage upon it”. For computers:Flower tells you…

I think the major danger of a single tick/flower/medal based labelling scheme is the suggestion that there is a right answer. I much prefer the ideas of informed choice (although having said that I note that the EU flower is carefully relative: “The official EU mark for Greener Products”).

It is perhaps worth noting that the focus of these schemes is environmental, there doesn’t seem to be an ecolabelling scheme incorporates a wider definition of sustainability (ie including social etc). The UN’s Global Compact and associated Global Reporting Initiative do have a wider scope: “principles of social and environmental behaviour in their daily business” (see for example social criteria for financial services) but these have not yet made it to consumer level ecolabelling systems.

Under maximising the impact of the report, they focus on the value of the process:

Sustainability reporting is a living process and tool, and does not begin or end with a printed or online publication. Reporting should fit into a broader process for setting organizational strategy, implementing action plans, and assessing outcomes. Reporting enables a robust assessment of the organization’s performance, and can support continuous improvement in performance over time. It also serves as a tool for engaging with stakeholders and securing useful input to organizational processes.

So. Yes an ecoLabel approach is good. I like the simple graphical approach but not if it means reducing complex information to a single device. The existing ecoLabels for computing hide much but also miss much. They should be part of a dialogue with stakeholders, should account for a wider interpretation of sustainability, and, go beyond hardware procurement to the wider sphere of computing.

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