At the recent start of Europe's largest consumer electronics (CE) show - the IFA 2014 in Berlin - the environmental group Greenpeace released a misleading report criticizing the CE industry's environmental efforts. The report said electronics "companies have failed to adequately address" their rising carbon footprint and that the industry "remains inherently unsustainable."
Allow the industry to retort.
Greenpeace's primary contention is that the industry hasn't done enough to rid its products of hazardous materials, in particular polyvinylchloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). But Greenpeace's own report notes that since 2006, when most mobile phones contained those substances, the percentage of products containing PVC and BFRs has been cut in half. Rather than give our industry credit for eliminating these materials, Greenpeace chooses to see this progress as "half empty."
The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, has helped develop an important tool: the Joint Industry Guide (JIG) -- Material Composition Declaration for Electrotechnical Products. This guide is designed to help facilitate compliance with government restrictions on hazardous materials and material disclosure requirements across the global supply chain. Moreover, many CE companies employ Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to help product designers better understand the environmental impact of raw or recycled materials, manufacturing processes, component selection and packaging.
The Greenpeace report might have noted that today's televisions are dramatically lighter and use less material than their analog predecessors. Our industry has removed a significant portion of what once made television sets and computer monitors so clunky and unwieldy. In fact, a CEA study of television and computer monitors found that from 2004 to 2010, flat-panel TV weight was reduced by 82 percent and volume by 75 percent, when compared to cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs.
It's interesting to note that two companies the Greenpeace report criticizes for their environmental efforts, Samsung and Sony, have been pioneers in innovating greener, more sustainable recycling methods. For instance, as CEA's 2013 Sustainability Report noted, in one year Samsung quadrupled the percentage of recycled plastics in its products.
And Sony engineers continue to develop SoRPlas (Sony Recycled Plastic) to expand the possibilities of using recycled material in products, bringing the company closer to its goal of a zero environmental footprint. Traditional recycled plastics contain about 30 percent recycled materials. But in SoRPlas, the recycled content can be as high as 99 percent -- and the one percent remainder includes Sony's original flame retardant that provides superior flame resistance while eliminating the need for BFRs. This breakthrough material can be found today in Sony's digital still cameras and other Sony products.
Greenpeace also attacks the industry for its "unsustainable" manufacturing practices. While China and other Asian manufacturing hubs have a long way to go in reducing their reliance on coal-burning power plants for, the truth is that CE products continue to use less energy every year.
As shown in our recent study Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2013, even as the number of consumer electronics in homes has increased, these products now account for a lower percentage of electricity usage per household - a nine percent decrease from their energy consumption share in 2010. These energy efficiency improvements for CE are being driven by innovation, competition and voluntary agreements and programs such as ENERGY STAR.
Consumers might notice that their electronic devices, from smartphones to laptops to digital cameras, seem to grow lighter every year. That's not just a design benefit; it's the result of using resources more efficiently. For example, HP's Thin Client computing devices can require up to 50 percent less material to produce than a traditional HP desktop PC - yet they're just as capable as larger devices, if not more so.
The consumer electronics industry has made a determined and successful effort over the past two decades to lead the way toward a more environmentally friendly and sustainable future. But you wouldn't know that from Greenpeace's report - the group prefers to let perfection be the enemy of good and great. In truth, the biggest and most influential catalyst for change in the CE industry has been the industry itself. And we will continue to strive for and embrace innovation, as well as all the benefits it brings.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro