CES 2008: The greenwash begins

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On Sunday night Bill Gates takes to the stage at the Venetian Ballroom for CES’s curtain raising keynote speech, and each year he delivers a surprise guest to play Eric to his Ernie. It is probably a long shot but I wonder if tomorrow’s star turn will be none other than Mr Inconvenient Truth Al Gore.

At a CES where gadgets are starting to look a little commoditised – bet we don’t see those swathes of MP3 players, PVPs and flash camcorders of previous years – makers are having to come up with new ideas to persuade us to trade in pounds for new gadgets. And what better way to do this than with a bit of greenwash – hence Al Gore.

Gary Shapiro, president of the CEA (which hosts CES) has already set his stall out claiming that the organisation will offset its astonishing 20,000 ton carbon footprint. And you can expect manufacturers to follow suit claiming that their products are more energy efficient, recyclable and generally much more Gore-friendly than their rivals. What worries me though is that I fear most of this is spin. Shiny’s Susi Weaser not long ago made the point that most gadgets are inherently power consumptive and not green at all and it is clear that until last year most makers didn’t give a toss about this. After all don’t plasma screen generally use about four times as much power as their CRT counterparts. And what about all those digital video recorders, set top boxes and routers – they all live on standby don’t they?

So forgive me if I am not swayed by manufacturers touting their recycling credentials (though I love the idea that’s being touted of corn based packaging, wouldn’t it be great to chomp on the casing while setting up your new toy) or claiming marginal reductions in power consumption. If we do take the apocalyptic view that our energy consumption is going to herald an era of catastrophic climate change isn’t it about time that the manufacturers really got together and came up with something much more tangible. Like instead of waging pointless format wars they should be working together to develop universal formats that work superbly well and are inherently green. Maybe they could agree to produce fewer products and even plan to change their ranges less often.

Another great step forward might be through standardising power adapters. One of the key concepts at CES may prove to be Green Plug which is trying to persuade manufacturers to form a coalition to deliver a universal low-energy USB charger. This doesn’t just sound great for the environment, it sounds bloody sensible too.

The trouble is this flies in the face of not just the way the consumer electronics industry functions but capitalism itself. Too much agreement and too much standardisation leads to a commoditisation of products which doesn’t chime with the really great thing about capitalism that it gives us myriad choices.

Ultimately what would be more convincing than a few tweaks to the energy consumption of products and some tasty packaging would be the start of industry wide collaboration. Not only agreeing on green basics but also with makers working together on how the industry should develop. That kind of a move might have a whiff of Soviet style planning about it, but in the long run it might be the industry’s only option.

Anyhow this year I will be paying special attention to all those solar powered chargers. They might not work anything like as effectively in Scunthorpe as they do in San Jose, but in a few years, well you never know…

Ashley Norris