Going green without going in the red: A manufacturer’s view

Thursday, February 28, 2008 |
By Jeff S. Johnson

As a guy that works for a manufacturing company, the term “green” takes two paths. The first path covers how we act as a company – our corporate responsibility to the world. The second is a little more important to a company’s shareholders – the actual selling of greener products. Today I’d like to focus on the product side. To paraphrase, if you build greener products, will people buy them?

Everyone seems to be going (or at least thinking) green. But whether people actually buy greener products is another story. Many people think the terms “going green” and “spending more” are synonymous. In fact, the Green Gauge survey conducted by Gfk Roper Consulting showed that 87% of Americans say they are seriously concerned about the environment, and 79% say a company’s environmental practices affect the products they buy. The irony is that three quarters believe that environmentally safer products are too pricey.

I can tell you that the “pricey” label doesn’t usually apply to greener computers. A few manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to make even more powerful computers while decreasing power use, limiting harmful chemicals, and recycling . Energy Star-rated computers are a great example. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that and Energy Star-compliant PC will save $103 per year in power. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but multiply it times the millions of computers in use today and you have a real environmental impact. So even if the computer costs $50 more you’re still ahead of the game. A greener high-performance server in a data center can save even more – as much as 30% less power.

When you talk about buying greener computers, you need to look beyond the price; just like the tech men and women do that run the IT department at your work. Most people don’t know how much energy and computing power it takes to run data centers, desktop PCs and monitors, and other technology at the office. A typical 50,000-square-foot data center, for example, gobbles 4 megawatts of power a day —the equivalent of 57 barrels of oil per day. And there are tens of thousands of data centers around the globe. The EPA estimates that data centers and servers account for 1.5% of all the energy used in the United States, and I’ve read reports that it is nearly that same percent worldwide.

The people who manage these data centers look at what is called TCO, or Total Cost of Ownership. TCO includes the entire lifecycle of a computer: purchase price, cost to set up and get running, cost to maintain and upgrade it, and how long it will last. Increasingly, it also includes the environmental policies of the manufacturer and disposal after the useful life of the machine. Think about the last PC you bought and multiply it times 140,000. A company like mine has 120,000 PCs (laptops and desktops), 20,000 servers, data storage devices, network connections, printers, and thousands of monitors. So if companies can save even 10% of their energy, the world as a whole is better off.

So if you were buying a computer – a laptop, desktop or server – what would you look for to know if it was greener than another? Here are a couple ideas:

  • Look for the Energy Star label: You can find recommendations on the Electronic Environmental Assessment Tool. Make sure you buy products that get a Gold rating.
  • Buy computers with power saver settings: Look for models that have factory-configured energy power settings that let you maximize your power savings. Climate Savers Computing recommends that your monitor/display sleep settings turn off after 15 minutes or less, hard drives/hard disks should sleep after 15 minutes or less, and system standby/sleep should kick in after 30 minutes or less.
  • Compare using free online power calculators: There are free calculators out there that allow you to determine which models burn less energy. [Desktops and laptops] [Monitors]
  • Check the manufacturer’s policies before you buy: Look for policies that limit the use of chemical and hazardous materials at the company from which you buy: Search manufacturer web sites for terms like “chemical use policy,” “lead,” “fire retardants,” and “sustainability.” And don’t pay attention to what they are going to do…only look at what they have done.
  • Check the environmental history of the manufacturer: There are some great sites where you can get news, like Treehugger.com, Regeneration.org, Greenbiz.com, Greenoptions.com, and of course Climate Savers Computing Initiative.
  • Look at the packaging: See how much post-consumer content is used in the boxes. And look at the number of boxes (some products come in a lot of different packages, rather than one). Also, see if they limit non-recyclable foam.
  • See if they will recycle your old computer: Remember that many PCs and monitors have harmful chemicals, especially lead. Don’t throw them away. Some companies offer free recycling of PCs, monitors and ink cartridges (others charge for this) and makes donations to the National Cristina Foundation (NCF) to help disabled and economically disadvantaged children and adults receive the gift of technology.
  • When you buy, offset the carbon emissions: My two favorite groups are “Plant a Tree For Me” and the Carbon Fund.

Here is my belief. The manufacturing of greener technology is just the right thing to do, whether people buy it or not. So my company took some really bold steps to do that. What is satisfying is that the marketplace (buyers) is really responding. Let’s have a conversation about this. Tell me what you want in greener technology. Tell me where you are seeing it. Share your links. Let’s grow the interest.

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