Greenwashed trends: Eco-tech takes center stage at CES 2009

"Greening" the company line is standard practice in the electronics industry, and we've been getting plenty of it here at CES 2009. After all, if washing machine A uses half as much energy as machine B, it must be better for the environment.


If only power consumption was the sole culprit, then corporations really would be as green as they claim to be. The industry has plenty of massive hurdles to clear in non-recyclable components, phantom/standby energy, harmful byproducts caused by manufacturing processes and — the worst — electronic waste.

So what makes a company come off as having nothing more than a green tongue, and who's actually walking the walk?

Take a look at what a Panasonic rep handed me when I asked for that conference's press kit, pictured above. It had the usual link to the materials I needed, but at first I thought I was handed a dingy piece of paper. If you look close at the directions, though, you'll see I was given a press kit that was literally green — I could turn it into a bed of marigolds and cosmos. It's just a gimmick, of course, but one that would set an eco-friendly tone for me right at the start of the show.

For years now, green technology supplied a niche market or, worse, ended up as marketing fodder as bullet points on a box, or promises made at retail. Several companies, including Panasonic (touting its new plasma display technology that sips a third of the power of its predecessors) and Samsung (showing off low-energy LED TVs), pushed the singular advancements as green and clean. Not to sound too cynical, but if Panasonic can appeal to a consumer with a TV that uses a bit less power, or wow them with one that can be thrice-as-bright — the flip-side — which marketing spin do you think will triumph?

It doesn't end there. The average consumer is only going to hold onto that set for a handful of years, say 5-10 (there's always something bigger, brighter and crisper right around the corner, after all). Then the TV ends up in a landfill, and it won't matter how much energy it uses.

That's not to say the efforts being made by corporations around the world to be more eco-friendly aren't worthy. We're glad to see it. It's a start, for sure, but sit in press conference after press conference, listening to company after company talk about how its policies make it more environmentally-minded than the competition, and your cynic senses start tingling. To the company's credit, Panasonic didn't just talk the talk. The electronics giant devoted a very large and visible chunk of its booth to eco-tech:


Looking at that booth got me thinking. Just who should the burden of recycling fall onto? The manufacturers, who refine the processes at the line? The retailers, who could collect your electronics after you're done with them and dispose the e-waste accordingly? (Some already do.) Should it all fall upon you — and, that said, do you trust the people around you to do the right thing? If you were going to toss your television right now, would you know where to take it?

It's simple to say, but harder to believe no matter how obvious: We're all in this together. Manufacturers do need to step up. Retailers do need to offer proper support. You and I need to make sure we're educated. Without getting too radical or waiting for a miracle recycling method to roll along, there are plenty of companies we've showcased during our CES coverage that are going above and beyond. Give them your business and hopefully it will continue to draw the attention of the e-giants. We can't — and shouldn't — do away with electronics, but we can and do work to improve them in every way imaginable.

The bottom line? It'll be interesting to see, going forward, if all of these green promises pan out or if this direction of eco-friendly technology, which took center stage here at CES '09, remains on that stage and turns out to be just an act. 2009, more so than any previous year, seems ripe for green technology to breakout as a standard rather than a niche.

UPDATE: Love 'em or not, Greenpeace released the results of the Green Electronics Survey 2008. It's got a lot of good information for the best eco performers last year, as well as the most terrible greenwashers.