Column: The green is starting to crumble

by Florian Wimmer 01/21/2010

Poison Green IT?

If you read, you likely own a laptop or are at least considering buying one. Good! Because you've taken the first step towards that what the manufacturer's marketing departments tend to call "Green IT". But is there really such a thing as an "environment-friendly computer" at all?

This is the way marketing departments like it most: everything green!
This is the way marketing departments like it most: everything green!

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Environmental protection is a popular trend. Considerate fathers with infants in eco-cotton baby slings buy bio baby food and then drive back to their solar-powered low energy homes in electric cars. Even the IT branch has already realized that they not only can attract customers with green technology but that it also boosts the company's prestige. Quality awards like the Energy Star or a TCO certificate are sought for by the manufacturers more than ever and the environmental data is always being put more in focus on the internet sites of the computer giants.

Illusions and reality

You shouldn't be lulled by the marketing departments' conscience soothing too much as a mature user. Sure, the manufacturers have been encouraged to reduce toxic substances in their devices, to make production more efficient and to use fewer raw materials by the new public environmental awareness.

So, the manufacturer Toshiba alleges that it is operating 2.05 times as ecologically compatible today than it did in 2000. HP wants to reduce the power consumption of all its products by 40 percent until 2011. Dell would like to cut back 10 million kilograms of packaging in the next 10 years and puts a few computers into especially environment-friendly bamboo packaging, whereas the raw material is also even cultivated Panda-friendly.

Of course, these are praiseworthy approaches but because the terms "green IT" or "environmental-friendly" aren't protected and their meaning hasn't yet been ultimately defined, every marketing department can compose their own fitting definition.

Additionally, the companies' initiatives are only difficult for customers to check. Let's say, Toshiba produced especially environment-detrimental in 2000. An improvement of 2.05 times wouldn't be so good then. And how much packaging does Dell actually save with the 10 000 tons aimed at? 10 percent? One percent? 0.1 per mil? There isn't any information on Dell's website about that.

Even more environmental problems

Otherwise, no one would likely invite bromine, mercury or PVC into their home
Otherwise, no one would likely invite bromine, mercury or PVC into their home

There are factors that burden the environment a lot more than packaging. Almost every IT device is produced in South-East Asia where, how practical, environmental guidelines are treated more lax than in western countries. An enormous environmental pollution is created just alone by transporting the computers all over the world. And for 2010, the big logistic corporations are counting with an additional 15 to 20 percent of goods being transported in and out of Asia.

Then there's the problem with the toxic substances: Highly toxic substances like mercury, bromine or PVC are used in almost every IT device. Therefore, not only the disposal after the device's, often very short, life becomes a problem but already the exploitation of these materials are problematic from a social and ecological point of view.

Incorrect thinking and maybe even an opposite example

One of the biggest mistakes when thinking about the keyword "green IT" is, therefore, that resources can be saved with new products. This can be true, but only if the spent energy and the used resources for manufacturing the new products and the disposal of the old ones are lower. That is, lower than the increased energy consumption when the old device is continued to be used. And that would have to be calculated for every individual case.

In view of all these problems, it's not very encouraging when companies merely publish their declaration of intent on their websites and rarely state hard figures about environmental protection. And when they do, then some of the presented great "innovations" are simply in compliance with legal guidelines.

A few manufacturers, however, give you the feeling that they make innovations available above the visibly effective cosmetic, which really brings IT a bit closer to their green status.

Ironically, it's China, the country that is frequently rebuked as the biggest environment polluter, from where Lenovo comes and presents products that can be recycled up to 90%, tests its systems for up to 200 toxic substances and waivers on them, even offers solar cells for computer centers… And soon afterwards is elected by Greenpeace for the penultimate place in the latest environmental ranking "Guide to Greener Electronics" because the company still uses toxic chemicals in its products.

More Devices = More Power Consumption!

The green image also crumbles when the mountains of electronic trash are seen
The green image also crumbles when the mountains of electronic trash are seen

Of course, it's worthy of praise when a topic like green IT is moved into the focus of public attention and forces companies to heed environmental protection even over the legal guidelines.

The danger about this is that politics and economy boast with keywords and alleged innovations without being able or not wanting to solve the real problem of the IT industry's horrific energy and resource consumption. Truly effective ecological management costs the companies a lot of money. Additionally, inside information has to be released in order to, for instance, obtain environmental labels… and suddenly the companies take data protection very seriously and would rather forgo on a eco logo than to publicize their valuable data.

A further problem is the consistantly growing numbers of IT devices. Last year, short before the CeBit started with focus on green IT, the Deutsche Bank Research pointed out that IT devices would be responsible for about half of the power consumption in private households by 2020. Even if the devices are getting more efficient in energy management, the resource consumption will increase because of the continuously increasing quantity.

And now?

But not only is the industry demanded. The consumers should also realize what mountains of electronic trash they are piling up with their buying habits and how many valuable raw materials are in even the cheapest IT.

These considerations will then hopefully flow into a few purchase decisions. Instead of buying a cheap laptop, a used and overhauled by an expert business laptop is the better, and maybe even cheaper, but in any case the more environmental-friendlier alternative. Such devices are available including a warranty by specialized retailers. Or maybe the old laptop will do for the next one, two years, after all.

If it has to be a new one, show the manufacturers that this topic is important to you and ask by email or telephone if the product has been produced ecologically friendly and how the manufacturer generally stands to environmental protection before buying.

And if your computer denies its services just after the warranty expires and the hotline cocks a snook at you, take revenge by removing all reusable parts (DVD drive, battery, RAM, hard disk) and send the rest back to the manufacturer. He is lawfully obligated to take back his electronic garbage. It sounds cumbersome but IT especially needs informed and active consumers in order to really earn the label "green".

Of course, it's not easy to deny yourself the purchase of the new Core i7 laptop with the strong graphic card and in comparison to high performance PCs with a 1000 watt adapter, it's the better choice. But you should be aware of only one thing: There are environmental-friendlier computers but there's no such thing as an environmental-friendly computer.

The industry and the consumers can mutually make IT really "green", can't they?
The industry and the consumers can mutually make IT really "green", can't they?
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Florian Wimmer, 2010-01-24 (Update: 2012-05-26)