Big Electronics: Bully of the eco-label playground

January 29th, 2013
Photo of kids on playground

Photo by iStockphoto.

IEEE decides totake its ball and go home” from EPEAT rulemaking playground

Something really sinister has just happened related to the EPEAT effort to update the computer standards. It happened on the IEEE’s playground, during recess.  Was it bad enough for the EPA and other stakeholders to take the EPEAT standard away from IEEE?

In case you are new to EPEAT, it’s a sort of “green” label for electronics. EPEAT stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool.  IEEE (pronounced “Eye Triple E”) is an enormous electronics industry professional organization, and it’s also the standards development organization (SDO) under whose rules and structure the EPEAT standards have been developed. (We’ve been using their playground.) Under this process, any stakeholder can participate in the meetings and votes to develop these standards, although the final balloting is done by dues paying IEEE members only. (Other stakeholders must pay to join IEEE to vote on the final ballot.) Once the standards are complete, the manufacturers’ products get evaluated against these EPEAT standards, and graded as EPEAT Bronze, Silver or Gold.

IEEE’s Playground Rules

IEEE invites the stakeholders to come to their playground to play and to bring their friends and their dollars. IEEE supplies the ball and jungle gym, and the swings, and you have to follow their playground rules (they even have a playground monitor with a whistle), but you can decide what you want to play. You can even modify some of the rules of your own game (called your Policies and Procedures), with IEEE’s approval. They’ve been inviting those of us interested in electronics over to their playground since 2005, when the EPEAT founders first approached them to be the SDO for the standard for computers (now known as IEEE 1680.1).

That has worked out better for some than others. The Big Kids, the major companies within the electronics and chemicals industry, pretty much always win because the playground rules are unbalanced and favor them. But EPEAT has still moved ahead modestly, recently releasing new standards for TVs and for “imaging equipment” which means printers, faxes, copiers, and multi-functions. The computer standard is six years old, however, and in serious need of revision, as most of the criteria are easily met by most computers, so they are no longer useful in identifying “leadership” products.

Rules of the eco-label game favor Big Electronics

In 2011, the playground “taskforce” that oversees all the kids working on electronics standards (it’s called the EASC Committee) developed new Policies and Procedures for developing future EPEAT standards, including the revision of the outdated computer standard.  The new P & Ps included some changes to the rules on voting and how stakeholder group assignments are made.  These changes would make the game a little more balanced so the Big Kids are not always guaranteed to win. They wanted to make sure voting is balanced (no stakeholder group can have more than 33% of the vote) even at the Working Group level (where all the work is done), not just at the final balloting. And initially, even the Big Kids on the taskforce supported these proposals.

IEEE doesn’t have to approve every set of P & Ps – only the ones they request to review. Initially, they didn’t request a review of these proposed P & Ps. But then last spring, they asked to review them. They came back to the EASC with requests to delete many of the proposed rule changes aimed at providing more balance.

When the EASC made some modifications and resubmitted their proposals to IEEE, it was again rejected, with even new concerns and arbitrary changes ordered. Efforts by the EASC over the summer and fall of 2012 to work through these issues with IEEE (all of which still adhere to the overall IEEE playground rules, mind you) were unsuccessful.

Playground bullies take over the “stakeholder” process

Then in December, IEEE suddenly stripped the EASC of its role in leading this stakeholder process. IEEE usurped this role and appointed its own three member “oversight group” that will make up their own P & Ps and decide how our little game is played.  This new cabal will require elections of the working group chairs (which have always been appointed, not elected, until now – it’s a crucial role that should be an impartial person, not an elected stakeholder).

Basically, the playground bully decided to “take its ball and go home.” Or for South Park fans, Cartman told them, “Screw you guys, I’m going home.”  It didn’t like how EPEAT was playing the game and trying to make the rules fairer.  From now on, EPEAT can come onto the playground, but it must sit quietly on the bench, while the new cabal calls the shots. And the Big Kids, mostly hiding behind their industry associations, are just fine with this new arrangement.

It’s time to move to a new playground

Many of the groups in the Electronics TakeBack Coalition have been stakeholders in EPEAT for several years. We believe it’s time to find a new playground. IEEE has bullied this process long enough, without adding anything of real value, just obstacles to real progress. They may know how to oversee work on technical standards, but with sustainability standards they are a terrible fit. While in theory this is a “consensus stakeholder process,” the lack of balance and other IEEE rules have allowed the industry voters to whittle away at draft standards in exchange for changing their votes from no to yes.  In the end, we are left with standards that are far too weak, far too limited, and that do little to move this industry forward on sustainability. But they have great potential which many of us would like to see realized. And that will never happen as long as we are under the IEEE stranglehold.

EPA, you were one of the original funders/supporters of this whole process. We hope you are ready for a change.  Let’s start by immediately moving the computer standard revision away from IEEE and, for a change, onto a level playing field.