As any frog will tell you, it's not easy being green. The same is true in the PC world, where each manufacturer is likely to have its own definition of "green."
Take, for example, the new Greenware desktops from WiPro Infotech. The India-based manufacturer—whose PCs are only sold in Asia—touts its "toxic-free" line as "100 percent recyclable and completely free from harmful chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) brominated flame retardants (BFRs)."
But Greenpeace, the environmental organization whose Guide to Greener Electronics periodically ranks manufacturers according to their policies on toxic chemicals and recycling, begs to differ.
"We commend WiPro for going above and beyond the law to protect environmental health and to eliminate the two most harmful chemicals and compounds in a PC," says Greenpeace IT analyst Casey Harrell. "But there are a whole slew of other toxic chemicals that still need removal and so to say that their computer is toxin-free is not really accurate."
Meanwhile, several PC makers that sell globally are in a race for the green and some are considerably closer to the finish line than others.
"Of the Big Three makers—Acer, HP, and Dell—Acer offers about five PVC and BFR-free models, and HP is very quickly shifting over to be completely free of those toxins by 2011," Harrell says.
HP's Anneliese Olson, senior director for worldwide product marketing, recalls the company going back to all of its vendors and using its purchasing clout to persuade them to supply PVC and BFR-free components that, in some cases, still needed to be developed. In January, HP unveiled its first PC that is free of the two toxins—its 8000f Elite Business PC.
But other global makers—like Lenovo—have been less successful. It had committed to being free of the two toxins by the end of 2009 and has had to push back that goal to year-end 2011.
"Whether we meet that goal depends on the availability in the supply chain," says Mary Jacques of Lenovo's worldwide environmental affairs team. "We are pushing our suppliers in that direction."
Meanwhile, Lenovo has been focusing on its packaging and on maximizing its user-recycled content.
"That's a great thing," says Greenpeace's Harrell, "but when you look at the entire environmental footprint of an electronics company, reducing the amount of packaging is not the top factor in determining which is the greenest company. These things use a ton of chemicals and removing them is a much more important criteria."
Indeed, while manufacturers clearly recognize that removing toxins from their PCs is a marketing differentiator that attracts "green-minded" customers, there are plenty of other motivators, says Harrell. The threat of legislation is one and the ability to be ahead of the curve on regulations puts a company in a better spot than its competitors.
And while some companies pay lip service to the environment, notes Harrell, there are other manufacturers that want to be responsible and not have their electronics end up overseas burned outdoors for scrap metal where the resultant toxic gases cause cancer spikes and developmental disorders in children.
In the meantime, says Harrell, some companies are waiting while the Big Three do the heavy lifting.
"Lenovo, for example, has said that to us. But at what point are the smaller companies going to take their turn? All these companies talk incessantly about corporate social responsibility. I don't think that's ever been defined as 'we'll do the right thing once everybody else has done it.' At some point, we just have to say to them that they ought to do the right thing, regardless what it takes."
Paul Hyman was editor-in-chief of several hi-tech publications at CMP Media, including Electronic Buyers' News.
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