Tech giants warp eco standards to greenwash electronics, rake in cash
How IT titans hijack manufacturing standards to put sales before planet
Analysis The makers of high-tech hardware have subverted green manufacturing standards to line their pockets while making their products look more environmentally responsible.
A report released last week by Repair.org, an organization that advocates for the right to repair technology products, says electronic device manufacturers control standards organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) use that control to shape rules for their benefit rather than the benefit of the environment.
"[M]embers of the IT industry have co-opted standards for their own benefit, warping them into a tool that drives sales at the expense of the environment," said Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org, in a statement.
The report, "Electronic Standards Are In Need Of Repair," says that while governmental organizations and advocacy groups have pushed for reuse, repair, and refurbishment of technology products as a way to prolong product lifecycles and reduce electronic waste, the IT industry has bent environmental guidelines to align with wasteful manufacturing practices.
"Unfortunately, manufacturers have consistently opposed stronger reuse and repair criteria," the report says. "And though manufacturers often claim they design for durability, no durability criteria is included in US electronics standards. As a result, green standards have systematically failed to incorporate strong policies that would enable repair, reuse, and product life extension for electronics."
The report points to the UL 110 standard for cellphones that's now part of EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), a registry for evaluating IT product sustainability.
UL 110 has an ease-of-disassembly requirement.
"But the criterion was written in such a way that Samsung is claiming its Galaxy S8 – a phone that is heavily glued together – meets the requirements set forth in the criterion," the report says.
So Samsung's S8 received a "Gold" rating in the EPEAT registry without actually being easy to disassemble. It's a bit like going to the Olympics and getting a gold medal just for showing up.
Apple's 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina display offers another example. Despite shipping with a proprietary SSD, non-upgradeable RAM, and a glued-down lithium-ion battery, the report says, the device still received an EPEAT "Gold" rating.
"When criticized for the Retina’s inclusion on the registry, EPEAT said that its product verification committee had determined that products were upgradeable if they had an externally accessible port – which all laptops have," the report explains.
Apple and the IEEE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a phone interview with The Register, report author Mark Shaffer, an environmental consultant who used to manage Dell's environmental programs, said, "The goal of the report is to shed more light on repair practices and the green standards world as a whole, and how the manufactures have full control over that."
Mobile devices have become far less easy to repair than their desktop-bound predecessors. Partly that's a consequence of miniaturization. But it also reflects deliberate decisions to glue components in place, to use proprietary screws, and to withhold technical information.
Repair.org is not the only group upset with the status quo. Greenpeace issued a report in June that chided Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung for making devices that are difficult to repair. The German environmental agency Umweltbundesamt (UBA) and the European Commission have likewise argued that the ability to repair and reuse products has environmental and economic benefits.
Coincidentally, when tech companies support repairs, they often prefer to capture that business and keep it for themselves.
"In the server market, those companies love that their product is repairable because it's cheaper for them to fix it," said Shaffer. "But they don't love when someone else can fix it. With Oracle, for example, if you have one of their old servers, if you don't buy their service contract, you will not be able to get the firmware upgrades because they control those completely."
The report concludes that captured environmental standards are a farce. Green electronics standards, it says, "have become a complicated way for manufacturers to greenwash products that have a devastating environmental impact and pat themselves on the back for business as usual."
Shaffer suggested academics, advocacy organizations, and those concerned about the environment will need to convince lawmakers to force the IT industry to create more repairable, reusable products.
Nancy Gillis, CEO of Green Electronics Council, which administers EPEAT, in a phone interview with The Register explained that EPEAT's rules come from standards organizations like the IEEE, and the GEC needs to apply the rules it is given.
Gillis said she welcomed Repair.org's report for opening up a dialogue on issues that need to be addressed.
"There's obviously something that's not working and we need to figure out what that is," she said, pointing to the amount of time it takes to develop standards.
The report suggests the standards process demands a lot of time, which discourages participation from non-industry stakeholders in academia and in advocacy organizations.
Gillis said the process needs to move more quickly while also observing that consensus-driven decisions take time.
"We're all very committed to making whatever changes are necessary so institutional purchasers can continue to rely on the EPEAT brand because there are so many gains to be had from being able to pick credible environmentally responsible brands," she said. ®