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'Green' Gadgets? Or Greenwashing

The consumer electronics industry is finally discovering what other industries have known for a long time: "Green" products sell.

I've got nothing against the environment. I'm all for real improvements in the manufacturing, distribution, sales, use, reuse and disposal of products that cut carbon footprints, gag greenhouse gases and put a lid on pollution.

But there's a big difference between a gadget merely marketed as "green" and one that's actually good for the environment. Sometimes companies just do something -- anything -- that lets them slap the word "green" on the package. It's called "greenwashing," and it's the environmental movement's ugly stepsister.

Corporations know that a growing percentage of buying dollars are going toward "green" products, and they want some of that money.

Recently, there has been a sudden surge in "green" consumer electronics products. But is the surge working?

• A Chinese company called Hoshino announced this week a biodegradable USB disk. The external plastic is a corn-based polylactide. (I haven't conducted lab tests, so I don't know if it actually *tastes* like corn.)

• Costco (NASDAQ: COST) is selling another "green" flash drive: The ATP 8GB EarthDrive, which the manufacturer claims is made using "a maximum amount of biorecycled material." (How much is "a maximum amount"?)

• Samsung launched this week its E200 Eco phone, which is covered by a case also made from "bioplastic" and comes in a recycled-paper box. (How do you know it's "green"? Well, for one thing, the phone is actually green.)

• Not to be outdone, Nokia (NYSE: NOK) said recently that it would unveil 40 -- count 'em 40! -- green cell phone handsets this year. (I don't think I have 40 of anything.)

• Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) recently unveiled its stylish Studio Desktop, which the company calls its "greenest, most power-efficient consumer desktop." The PCs, which come with a choice of fruity colored sleeves or even a real bamboo sleeve -- have 75 percent less paper documentation and use 70 percent less power than a "typical desktop." (They also appear to have 70 percent less room for expansion.)

How to tell it's greenwashing

The flash drives and mobile phones mentioned above primarily use biodegradable plastic cases as their claim to green fame. Biodegradable is nice -- theoretically. But "the environment" only cares about biodegradable plastic that is actually biodegraded.

If someone removes the toxic electronics, separating case from components, then carefully and lovingly buries the bioplastic case alone in soil, some tiny environmental benefit ensues. But that's very unlikely to happen to many -- or any -- of these devices.

After being discarded, they'll either end up in the trash -- in an American landfill -- or they could end up being processed in some illegal "backyard" recycling operation in China, India or Nigeria. Some of the electronics might be recycled, but the biodegradable cases will probably be dumped in a landfill somewhere.

Unfortunately, biodegradable materials usually don't biodegrade in a landfill. Corn-based biodegradable plastic? Ha! Even fresh corn-on-the-cob doesn't biodegrade in an average landfill after even 25 years.

Dell's Studio Desktop is a desktop PC made primarily with laptop electronics. If you want a PC with laptop electronics, why not buy a laptop? The Studio Desktop line has everything to do with Dell getting a piece of the "green" market and very little to do with saving the planet. Studio is mostly about selling the image of eco-friendliness, not actual environmental protection. Oooh, look! Bamboo! It matches my Birkenstocks! Gimme a break.

Many "green" consumer electronics sold on the basis of biodegradability or power savings represent greenwashing. They make the buyer feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and the seller a little richer. But they don't do diddly-squat for Mother Earth.

How to buy truly "green" gadgets

While many "not-that-green" products are sold almost exclusively on the basis of environmental friendliness, many truly eco-friendly products aren't sold as having any environmental benefit at all.

Green tech
Every consumer electronics product is bad for the environment. They all contain metal and toxic materials, and many have batteries and other acidic, poisonous components. The manufacturing, distribution, usage and disposal -- even recycling -- have some bad impact on the environment.

While efforts to reduce impact are laudable, the most environmentally friendly product -- by far -- is the one that's never manufactured in the first place.

Stated another way, the longest-lasting products are the most eco-friendly because by continuing to use them, you avoid buying replacement devices.

Stated in yet another way, buying a "green" cell phone every year isn't nearly as "environmentally friendly" as buying a regular cell phone every two years.

If you want a green "image," then by all means purchase corn-based cell phones and bamboo PCs.

[cob:Pull_Quote]But if you actually want to help the environment, then buy consumer electronics that are super high-end and built to last. By buying top-of-the-line equipment (rather than average products covered in corn plastic), your electronics won't become obsolete as quickly. And that means a longer period of time will pass before you buy another gadget. And when you do, you can sell, rather than recycle, the equipment, preventing yet another device from being made.

Also: Buy convergence devices. Instead of buying a Dell Studio Desktop, plus a laptop, just buy a very high-end laptop and use it as a desktop. The most eco-friendly desktop PC is one that's never made, sold, used or discarded.

There are green gadgets, and there are greenwashed gadgets. If you want to help the environment, learn to spot the difference.

In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+datamation@gmail.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.



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