When Greenpeace released its most recent Guide to Greener Electronics this month, Nokia and Samsung retained their first and second place rankings as leaders in green tech and practices in the guide, respectively. Likewise, Microsoft retained its fifteenth place ranking, out of 17. Overall, the quarterly scores did not create a lot of shifting in order for the companies evaluated, but where change was the most noticeable was in progress, or lack of progress, in removing toxic chemicals and materials from products. Greenpeace uses this category, along with environmental impact of operations and products, and recycling and takeback programs, to create its guide.
Microsoft did get credit from Greenpeace for its pledge to eliminate PVC and brominated flame retardants (BFR) from all hardware by or before 2010, with the caveat that it still needs to address BFRs in circuit boards. In the same vein, it's made good progress in chemical management and identifying other potentially harmful substances to eliminate from products in the future.
Redmond isn't doing as well, according to the guide, in e-waste programs. Microsoft supports the Individual Producer Reponsibility concept, as do many other companies, like Dell and HP. It also supports the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in the European Union. But Greenpeace urges the company to go further in these areas, and more specifically, to support the financial burden of dealing with "end-of-life" costs of its own products. It also wants to see a company takeback program, strong education for customers about takebacks, and more specific reporting on the amount of material it recycles.
Improving its metrics on these points will likely turn out to be the easier task for Microsoft, compared to maximizing its influence on partners, suppliers and customers, which is, after all, the bigger-picture goal that Greenpeace, as watchdog, desires. Certainly, it is Microsoft's responsibility, not its customers', to remove harmful chemicals from its products in a timely manner. But it's that "end-of-life" situation that takes a portion of the control away from Microsoft, if not all of the blame. As IT Business Edge's Lora Bentley wrote recently, even in good times, the commitment by companies to stick with recycling programs for e-waste has to bypass the reality that it is not a money-saver. Even a slight risk of fines may not hold much sway when the numbers are crunched. The economic situation now is making those commitments even more difficult, says M&K Recovery Group's Matt Decareau, because it is further delaying possible federal legislation on e-waste and recycling.
With the influence of governmental agencies and lawmakers over proper disposal of e-waste in its relative infancy, and temporarily depressed, does the influence of companies like Nokia, Samsung, Apple, Microsoft and others in Greenpeace's report become stronger? It seems that reporting on the percentage of customer companies taking part in takebacks and recycling programs is the next step in evaluating the progress of these vendors in going green. We know that assuming that end users will always do the "right thing" while corporations bear watching doesn't work when it comes to e-waste and recycling. (Or when it comes to other issues. I'm reminded of a former employer which, after intense lobbying and/or whining by employees, installed an attractive workout space on-site. Should we employees have rushed to secure our spots on the gym equipment because it was the healthy thing to do and what we had asked for? Yes. Did we? No.) Top-ranked Nokia says of its mobile device takeback program:
If all mobile phone owners today - in other words, three billion people globally - brought back one unused device, we could save 240,000 tonnes of raw materials and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the same effect as taking 4 million cars off the road. ... In order for us to carry out our own responsibilities we also need the help of others in the value chain, like consumers and retailers, and their commitment to bringing back obsolete mobile devices for responsible recycling.
In tech, planned obsolescence isn't going away, and both Microsoft and its customers reap the benefits. Dealing with the waste created is the responsibility of both parties as well.