Time To Kill Off ‘Green IT’?

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Sustainable products shouldn’t be in a ghetto. Green should be an integral attribute of every piece of hardware or service says Andrew Donoghue

The sooner that the whole concept of “green” IT is abandoned altogether the better.

That might sound a tad odd considering this column is meant to explore developments in sustainable computing but I think that continuing to talk about a separate category of “green technology” is the one sure way to retard its development.

Unfortunately, sustainability is still seen as a marketing edge by device makers and service providers and will probably continue to be so until legislation and consumer preference erases the alternatives.

It appears that consumers still very much view “eco” or “green” alternatives as a separate product category – and are wary of them as a result.

Rather than being a more complete or sustainable offering, some consumers actually see green products as somehow substandard, according to the results of a new report. UK sustainability organisation WRAP questioned consumers on their attitudes to a variety of electronic goods ranging from the solar-powered Samsung Blue Earth Mobile to the Electrolux Green vacuum cleaner. While some of the results were encouraging and the environmental value of green design was recognised, there was also a fair amount of scepticism.

Cautious About Green

On the whole, respondents still viewed “green” as something novel and distinct and admitted to being “cautious” about buying such products.

Recycled plastic is a good example of this wariness in action. Some consumers saw it as a positive but others were put-off by the terminology which they perceived as being somehow inferior.  “…others were concerned that the material might not be durable enough, particularly where a product undergoes heavy usage. In this case, their desire to hold or feel products before purchasing was increased,” the report stated.

The other aspect of green being an add-on is that companies can charge more for it. This approach was also singled out by the respondents to the WRAP survey as one of their concerns about “eco” products. The issue is not just that green products are more expensive but whether that extra cost is really justified in the long term. Am I being asked to pay more for something that – as with the perceptions about recycled material – won’t last as long as the conventional model?

The industry response to the question of greater up-front costs is that the payback often comes in energy-savings through the product’s life. But again the respondents to the survey weren’t overly convinced and thought the tech companies could be doing more to really get that concept across.

The energy savings message is certainly one that has been communicated hard in the business world but less so when it comes to consumer devices. That might change in the future however when smart meters become more ubiquitous and consumers are able to get a tighter handle on their energy spending. But then there are concerns about whether households really want to micro-manage their energy use to that degree.

But it is not only consumers who are sceptical about the real benefits of green tech. Business have also begun pushing back against the “green added extra” strategy employed by most vendors. Speaking at a green tech conference last year, a spokesperson from the Department of Work and Pensions recounted how he was incredulous that IT service providers and consultants considered basic environmental information as being a way to pull more cash out of their customers. “I am absolutely passionate that green IT is part of the core service offerings for all the IT industry,” he said. “I somewhat get obsessed when service providers turn around to me and say: ‘Thanks for spending hundreds of millions of pounds with us each year – now we want to sell you a service to tell you what the carbon footprint of that is’.”

Greenwash To Blame

Greenwash, and some outright untruths, on the part of vendors and service providers has a lot to do with much of the mistrust and confusion around green products. Thankfully the Advertising Standards Authority has been pretty good at stamping down hard on such claims recently but it will take time for companies to earn back that trust. Tighter regulations that follow the work already laid down by the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives will help as will more recognised industry standards such as the US Energy Star rating system.

Obviously, green is a sliding scale and it is important to communicate how efficient a product or service is but this should be done using clearly defined standards rather than much of the vague discussion of eco-friendliness that still pervades marketing information.

In the future, all tech products should be inherently “green” – to commonly agreed baselines – but with vendors free to advertise any significant improvements they make beyond that. The focus should be on the best of the best rather than the least worst option as with many products today.

Rather than being touted as something unique or revolutionary, green attributes should be business as usual for all IT hardware. Only when this happens will we get mainstream uptake of so-called green technology for the simple reason that there won’t be any alternatives.


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