Talk of Sustainability Was Everywhere at Consumer Electronics Show

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Walking the halls of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, it wasn’t difficult to find companies making green claims. Along with 3D televisions, 3D cameras and 3D content, words like "sustainable", "efficient" and "green" were everywhere.

From energy efficiency to waste reduction to alternative energy, it’s clear that consumer electronics manufacturers want buyers and consumers to know that sustainability is an important part of their DNA. In fact, the Consumer Electronics Association worked with Nextera Energy to buy renewable energy credits to offset the conference with its 120,000 plus attendees. They also put together panels a track on technology and the environment with topics like e-waste recycling.

Perhaps some of these “green” claims from the participants are a bit exaggerated, like Smoking Everywhere Electronic Cigarettes self-identifying as a green product. However, it is clear that the electronics industry sees that there is value in sustainability.

The technology industry has almost always seen the connection between profit and solving human problems, or at least giving the people what they want. In fact, this is the message at the center of Microsoft’s current “Windows 7 Was My Idea” ad campaign. One of the things the people wanted out of Windows 7 was less waste, and Microsoft delivered by providing 30% greater energy efficiency.

There is an argument to be made — and a strong one — that the technology industry thrives on a wasteful push to constantly be replacing last year’s model.

Just bought a new HD, flat screen? Time to upgrade to HD 3D (and even I can admit that the demo with sports and nature shows in 3D was pretty cool). The consumer part can feel overwhelming, even to non-conservationists. But at the same time, there is a push to develop more efficient and effective technologies. And an understanding that it is, in fact, what the people want.

I spoke to Daniel Kessler of Greenpeace about this. The organization had a booth there promoting its just released 14th quarterly Guide to Greener Electronics.

“IT is 2% of global emissions,” he told me, “but it can produce technology for 15% reductions in global emissions in a very economical way.”

Greenpeace is hoping that by promoting those companies that are reducing their own footprint — and penalizing those that are not — it can influence how quickly that happens.

“At this point, it’s not a question of phasing out toxic chemicals, for example,” Kessler said, “but a question of when — the speed with which they will do it.”

Kessler points to the Greenpeace campaign against Apple as an example of the impact organizations and consumers can make. “Two years ago, we campaigned against Apple and now they have the greenest notebooks on the market,” Kessler says. And Hewlett Packard, a recent nemesis of Greenpeace, just put out the industry’s first PC that is wall-to-mouse toxic-free, Kessler informed me. “When Hewlett Packard doesn’t meet its commitments, we make sure the world knows. And when they do the right thing, we pat them on the back.”

But these aren’t the only companies doing the right thing, or making technology advances that impact emissions and efficiency.

There was an entire section of e-book readers. These devices are becoming increasingly usable and, while I still love the smell and feel of paper, some of these e-book readers offer functionality that paper books don’t have, like easy search and portability of multiple volumes.

Big companies like Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Sony — the list could fill the page — all had sections in their displays on sustainability. For Samsung, that includes helping to green the Olympics; LG is into phone recycling; and Panasonic is developing stationary fuel cell technology.

Charging Up and Powering Down

In the sustainability section of the North Hall, the focus was on charging with renewable energy. We’ve seen the solar chargers before — the solar chargers from the UK company Solar Technology are durable, flexible and relatively inexpensive — but now companies are showing combination solar and wind chargers with mini-turbines, like the one made by Kinesis (right). Or how about the YoGen which goes old school and lets you charge your portable electronics using good old human energy — just repeatedly pull the cord to charge your phone.

In the arena of renewable energy chargers and electronics, though, it is clear that China is dominating, with companies like MINIWIZ and Ecomix. China may be highly coal-dependent, but Chinese businesses are banking on growing markets for solar and wind.

Energy saving was also on a lot of minds, with a plethora of energy saving surge protectors. HiSAVER makes one with a motion sensor to automatically turn off all of your computer peripherals when you’re not there. The Tellysense does the same for your TV.

Greener Design

Reducing environmental impact through better packaging was another key area at the show. MeadWestvaco has developed plastic clamshell packaging that uses recycled paper and less plastic. Univenture is pushing compostable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging options.

Other companies are pushing innovative design. There were water-powered alarm clocks and keyboards made from rubber that can be rolled up. OrigAudio, calling itself “the origami of audio”, makes speakers out of recycled paper. The company’s Rock-It device allows you to make speakers out of just about anything: a tissue box, a plastic container, an empty shipping carton. It takes the idea of re-use to a whole new level.

On the vehicle front, everyone was atwitter and twittering about Ford’s new SYNC technology. Hands-free calling, audible text, audible music search, it’s all there, making their cars safer and more fun to drive. But along with its safety and technology credibility, Ford was strongly promoting its leaner, greener, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The pride of the fleet is no longer the bloated Explorer, but the energy efficient Fusion Hybrid. The Ford representative assured me that if I wait a year to trade in my Prius, I can be the proud owner of a Ford plug-in hybrid.

There are two other areas that were big at the show that, while not directly about sustainability, have big potential impact.

All-in-One and Totally Connected

First is the preponderance of items that combine multiple technologies in one device. As I walked the halls, I was reminded of the old Saturday Night Live skit — “It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”

We have quickly become accustomed to having phones that are cameras, computers and navigation systems all in one. But software applications like Kidos, which can turn your PC into a toddler friendly interface with a key stroke, means sharing one computer instead of buying two.

The other area is one that I heard Michael Totten of Conservation International speak about at LA Bioneers a few weeks ago: connectivity.

It seems that the goal of every new device out there is to make us more connected to information and each other, allowing for easier, faster and wider sharing. Motorola was pushing hard on this theme with a huge display showcasing phones that enable social networking to thrive anywhere, anytime.

Totten believes that this is where technology can have the greatest impact on climate; allowing us to crowd source ideas to solve the climate crisis and quickly share solutions that work.

If that’s the case, then the consumer electronics industry is ready, willing and able to do their part to give us ever increasing levels of connectivity. How we use that is up to us.


See also:

Bell Labs Launches Global Effort to Make Internet 1,000 Times Greener by 2015

7 Energy Efficient Gadgets that Could Be 2010 Game-Changers

Energy-Efficiency Rules for TVs Could Spark an OLED Boom

For Stocks, 2009 Marked Rise of Energy Efficiency, Electric Cars

(Photos: lge/CC BY 2.0; Kinesis)