Ever wonder how tech companies can make unrepairable, non-upgradeable, hard to recycle products—and still get away with calling themselves green? Because those same tech companies actually help write US standards for greener electronics, according to a new report from Repair.org.
If we want better environmental standards, we’ve got to stop letting the fox guard the henhouse: we can’t let companies like Apple, Oracle, and Sony tell us what makes cell phones, servers, and computers environmentally sound. We need to demand better, more repairable, more sustainable product designs.
What are green electronics standards, anyways?
Strictly speaking, no electronic device is “good” for the environment—they’re resource intensive to make and too many of them end up in the trash too soon. Tech companies can really only make electronics that are “less bad” for the environment. Green standards give electronics manufacturers a clear path to “less bad”—weighing things like materials use, packaging, energy efficiency, lifespan, and recyclability to rate products. If a new product meets enough of the criteria on the standard, it gets listed on EPEAT’s green product registry with a Bronze, Silver, or Gold designation. The more criteria the new gadget meets in its standard, the higher the designation.
But manufacturers don’t just seek green certifications out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s strategic. Consumers prefer to purchase sustainable products and we’ll pay more for them. Plus, the federal government—the single largest purchaser of IT equipment in the world—is actually required to buy electronics vetted by these standards. It may not be easy being green, but tech companies can make a chunk of money doing it.
Products scores are designed to be quantitative, so you can’t really fudge your final rating in a standard. But what if you could design a standard that your products are guaranteed to pass? It’s like rigging a test: instead of improving the product, manufacturers change the scoring system to match their products. Their gadget is dubbed “green,” consumers get to buy it guilt-free, and everyone wins—except the environment.
Rigging the system
So let’s say you’ve designed a server that’s coming out next year. You want it to get a high rating on the green standard, but you don’t want to change your design. No problem! Just join the open committee that develops the standard and object to any progressive rules that might flunk your product. Standards are consensus-based, so the negative voices carry the day.
“Manufacturers often make up such a large portion of standards committees, they can easily vote against policies they deem too challenging and approve more lax requirements,” writes Mark Schaffer, a standards expert and author of Repair.org’s new report on the standards development process, Electronics Standards Are In Need of Repair.
Here’s an infuriating tidbit: There doesn’t seem to be a single non-profit environmental organization in the group that’s developing the standard for greener servers. There are a whole lot of tech companies, server-makers, and chemical companies, though. What sort of standard do you think they’re gonna come up with?
When manufacturers design standards, of course they’ll fit the standard to their existing products. I saw it firsthand during the six years I spent working on UL 110—a standard for greener mobile phones. Tech companies banded together to push forward the criteria they wanted and shot down the ones they didn’t. And they were especially hostile towards any criteria that would have made mobile phones easier to repair or recycle.
We managed to get in a few repair-related criteria into the standard, but the language got so watered down that even Samsung’s Galaxy S8 can apparently meet the criterion for ease-of-disassembly. And that’s not a phone that’s easy to take apart—it’s glued together. In the end, the only really strong, effective repair criteria we managed to get into the standard—over Apple’s vocal objection—was an optional point for phones with batteries that can be removed without tools.
With 14 years under his belt, Schaffer has been involved in electronics standards far longer than I have. And he’s noticed a trend: In the last five years, green standards for electronics have gotten weaker. As his report details, the computer standard has become saturated with top-tier level products over the last few years. As of July 2017—the report notes—64% of 1700+ devices registered in the US to the EPEAT computer standard earned a Gold designation. And 97% of devices were listed as either Gold or Silver.
That’s a hell of a high percentage of top-performing devices for a standard that’s meant to call out only the best products on the market. And no wonder: most of the standard is over 10 years old. It’s in the middle of a revision, but standards take years to write—mostly because it’s incredibly hard for manufacturers to agree with everyone else.
Nonprofit groups and academic researchers that actually do care about the environment don’t have enough resources to invest years into writing standards, so they have a tendency to burn out and disappear. Tech companies, though, have lots of time and money, so they can afford to drag their feet until they get their way.
Green standards for electronics don’t lead anymore, says Schaffer—because tech companies don’t want them to. And despite concerted efforts to make products more reusable, more repairable, and easier to recycle—there’s been little actual progress.
“Instead, [green standards] 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,” Schaffer’s report concludes.
Fallen green giant
It wasn’t always like this. The first sustainable electronics standard—for laptops and computers—was adopted in 2006. At the time, the development group was smaller, and they succeeded in setting the stage for “greener” computers with a demanding standard.
At first, not a single product initially passed the standard with a gold rating and just 60 products made it on the registry at all. But manufacturers rose to the challenge. By 2008, 1,000 products were listed on the registry. EPEAT did what leadership standards are supposed to do: it led.
EPEAT’s current computer standard requires that products be upgradeable, batteries removable, and hard drives accessible with a common tool. They barely make laptops like that anymore. Yet laptops like the 2012 MacBook Pro Retina (a non-upgradeable laptop with a glued-down battery and tamper-resistant screws) still met the standard. When people balked, EPEAT determined that technically an external USB port made the laptop upgradeable, that you could technically pry up a glued-down battery, and that Apple’s proprietary security screw was technically common enough.
Sure, they technically adhered to the standard’s wording, but they clearly violated its spirit. And now pretty much any laptop gets points for upgradeability, whether it’s actually upgradeable or not.
And it keeps getting worse. The mobile phone standard that I worked on for so long was just published—and the very first batch of phones were just added to EPEAT for meeting the standard. Of the 8 listed, 7 of the phones earned EPEAT gold.
“The gold-dense scoring line-up is troubling in a standard so new. A properly-developed leadership standard should start off with devices just barely able to achieve the bronze level—as the initial computer standard did in 2006. The fact that two of the largest producers of mobile phones were immediately able to achieve gold designations for their existing products indicates that the leadership standard substantially reflects the status quo. It doesn’t lead—and the new criteria isn’t driving device design in a more sustainable direction,” Schaffer writes in the report.
Repair is important
US tech companies won’t be able to dig their heels in forever. They’re losing their grip. Things are changing. This year, a dozen US states introduced Right to Repair legislation that would require tech companies to provide repair instructions, and sell spare parts for broken devices—two things manufacturers have managed to keep out of green standards for electronics. And new, balanced standards development through organizations like NSF promise better processes.
Government leaders around the world are pushing for greener, more reusable electronics, as well. France made planned obsolescence illegal in 2015. Sweden implemented tax breaks for people who repair their things instead of replacing them. And the EU Parliament recently voted to recommend “longer product lifespan” through “robust, easily repairable and good quality products.” And while the rest of the world is trying make electronics better, tech companies in the US have found a way to fake their green credentials on their way to make more greenbacks.
“Green standards play an important role. They are supposed to shape the electronics industry for the better and encourage manufacturers to make more sustainable products. As consumers, we should be able to trust them to identify only the most sustainable products,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of Repair.org. “Instead, members 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. This is patently unacceptable, and it needs to change.”
If you think so too, then you’ve got to demand more sustainable, easier-to-repair, easier-to-recycle products from manufacturers. Join standards committees. Buy repairable products. Support Right to Repair legislation in your state. And tell your tech companies that you want longer-lasting, better products. Greenpeace has a petition you can sign here.