I’ve been reflecting on the new Greenpeace Greener Apple Campaign. I don’t own an Apple. (For reasons relating to the various universes in which I travel, I’ve had to suck it up and become a Microsoft man.) But I certainly own a computer. This is being written on a Dell 8400 that’s the repository for everything from the music I love to very nearly every word I’ve ever written. It’s not an Apple but it’s still fast, efficient, and just plain fun to use. Imagining life without it is like trying to picture life without an arm or a leg. Yeah, I could do it. But I sure wouldn’t want to have to try.
So the news that computers are filled with all kinds of things that aren’t good for people or the planet is disturbing. Of course, I’ve known for awhile that the high tech situation isn’t good. What’s distressing about the recent Greenpeace report is the fact that things have not improved as fast as they should have in the years that people have been talking about issues like e-waste and toxic components.
I came across this well-reasoned post on the Temas Blog that offers some valid criticisms of the Greenpeace greener electronics report card. Greenpeace’s heart is in the right place, but its methodology needs improvement and it focuses on certain aspects of computer toxicology at the expense of others it largely ignores. Plus, it’s picking on Apple while other makers actually get lower grades, and that doesn’t seem fair. Rather than point fingers, I’d encourage computer makers to get down to work and fix the problem. Based on our own experiences working to detox some pretty ugly consumer products, here’s some advice:
- Start by making the fundamental decision to transform your products into toxin-free goods that get completely recycled when life ends. That’s a huge mountain to climb, but keep a can-do attitude. It’s the only way you’ll do the impossible.
- Know that getting to the summit will take years. But don’t see this as a reason not to try. Accept it. Embrace it. Technologies are going to have to be re-thought and re-engineered. Materials substitutes identified and tested. New “take-back” mechanisms and recycling avenues created. It’s going to take a lot of work but know that it will result in products worth every penny of investment.
- Deconstruct your technologies and identify all the associated eco-issues. Then split these issues up and assign responsibility for them throughout the company not just to the usual suspects. Make sure everyone owns the initiative. It’ll happen faster and the creativity you need can flow from outside the usual places. If your company is going to think outside the box, you’ll have to bring in people in from outside the box.
- As solutions are found they should enter the pipeline. Don’t wait to institute changes until a bunch can be made at once. Deploy each alternative as its found so that your products improve incrementally rather than via quantum leap.
- In the meantime, start using every alternative non-toxic material/process that’s ready to go (and there are many that many companies aren’t using) and launch programs to take back every product you sell. (Old gear may not be recyclable yet, but you can at least ensure that disposal occurs in as responsible a manner as possible.)
- Launch a transparency and reporting initiative to come clean about all the environmental problems computers contribute to. We need an honest dialogue about the impacts digital technology is having on the biosphere . Be clear about what the challenges are and how you’re working to resolve them. Talk about the trade-offs required, admit to the mistakes you make along the way, and keep everyone apprised of your progress.