One of the biggest obstacles to the creation of markets for "green" products and services is the lack of norms and standards any new market needs to gain traction. For example, what's a "green business"? No one really knows, or at least agrees on a singular definition. (A group of us have been working to develop a standard that addresses this very question; more to come on that soon.)
Where standards do exist, new markets can take off. That's the case with LEED, the green building standard, which is credited with dramatically accelerating the market uptake of environmentally responsible buildings. The federal government's Energy Star standard similarly created a solid foundation for companies to develop, manufacture, and market appliances, electronic equipment, and even entire buildings that meet energy-efficiency criteria.
When these standards are backed with procurement commitments from government agencies, large companies, and nonprofit institutions such as universities, the conditions are ripe for market transformation. In fact, it is safe to say that without these two ingredients -- standards and procurement commitments -- transforming markets to be greener is impossible.
Now comes EPEAT, a just-launched standard for "green" computers and other electronic equipment, created by the Portland, Ore.-based Green Electronics Council and adopted at the annual International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment. The voluntary standard, funded by the U.S. EPA, was initiated by a group of manufacturers, environmentalists, and purchasers.
IEEE 1680, as the standard is known, is the first U.S. standard to supply environmental guidelines for institutional purchasing decisions involving desktop and laptop computers and monitors. It offers criteria in eight categories -- materials selection, environmentally sensitive materials, design for end of life, end-of-life management, energy conservation, product longevity and life-cycle extension, packaging, and corporate performance. (Download the standard here in PDF.) The new standard will encourage manufacturers to design their products to be used longer, be more energy efficient, easier to upgrade and recycle, and contain fewer hazardous materials.
Much like LEED, which has good/better/best levels of performance, the EPEAT rating system evaluates computer and other electronic products according to three tiers of environmental performance -- Bronze, Silver, and Gold. There are 51 total environmental criteria: 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria. To qualify for certification as an EPEAT product, a product must conform to all the required criteria. Manufacturers may pick and choose among the optional criteria to boost their EPEAT rating to achieve a higher level as follows. To qualify as "Silver," a product must meet all 23 required criteria plus at least 14 optional criteria; "Gold" requires at least 21 optional criteria in addition to the required items.
What's giving this weight is the potential for large-scale purchases to adopt IEEE 1680 as the basis of their procurement. Already, the U.S. Army, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Interior Department, and the state of California are including EPEAT language in requests for proposals. EPA estimates that in the next five years purchases of EPEAT-registered computers could reduce hazardous waste by 4 million pounds and save enough energy to power two million homes.
Such predictions notwithstanding, it's too early to tell whether EPEAT will do for green computing what LEED has done for green buildings, but it's a promising start. What needs to happen next is the hard part: the chicken-and-egg problem that all new markets face -- whether supply should proceed demand, or vice versa. That's a conversation that voluntary standards can't control.
But the downside for manufacturers is minimal. Building to new IEEE 1680 standard essentially means building durable computers that use minimal energy, are easily upgraded, and can be easily (and harmlessly) recycled. That's a good value proposition likely to sell more machines regardless of whether buyers specify the new standard.
And that's what a good, green standard should do: Provide market incentives to build and sell products that are a better value for customers, and for the environment.