Is the Obama administration lowering the bar on green electronics?

By Alison Moodie, The Guardian Sustainable Business

April 23, 2015

A new government-issued executive order has weakened a federal ratings system aimed at greening America’s electronics industry, environmentalists say. Is the US moving backward on green purchasing?

Environmental advocates fear that an executive order from the Obama administration last month may spell the beginning of the end for a federal ratings system aimed at greening America’s electronics industry.

The database, known as the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), is a worldwide registry that lists certified green electronics products, such as cell phones, computers, televisions and printers, in an effort to eliminate electronic waste, promote sustainable design and save energy.

For nearly a decade, the government has required that 95% of electronics purchased by federal agencies be EPEAT-certified. But the executive order,published on 19 March to lay out the federal government’s sustainability efforts over the next decade, makes no mention of EPEAT, which has led some NGOs and green electronics advocacy groups to cry foul.

“It was a huge incentive for companies to comply with this standard if they wanted the federal government’s business,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a group of environmental and consumer groups that push for sustainability in the electronics industry. “This basically throws open the door for any weak standard to be used for federal purchasing.”

EPEAT was launched in 2006, and although it is not a government standard, it was developed with the backing of the Environmental Protection Agency. It rates electronic products against a set of criteria such as energy efficiency and sustainable packaging, which aims to help customers choose the products that carry the most environmental benefits.

According to the program’s website, governments around the world, as well as colleges, schools and hospitals, use the program. More than 50 brands have products registered with EPEAT.

A spokesperson at the Green Electronics Council, the nonprofit environmental group that manages the EPEAT system, said the executive order is definitely a concern, but that the group has faith that federal agencies will continue to buy EPEAT products even though they are no longer required to do so.

“The recently published executive order in no way precludes federal purchasers from using EPEAT to identify environmentally preferable electronics,” said Green Electronics CEO Robert Frisbee. “We’re confident that federal agencies will continue using this proven, easy-to-use path to meet their electronics stewardship commitments.”

According to the executive order, federal agencies will have two options. Beginning in October 2016, the start of the next fiscal year, they can either choose products that meet standards recommended by the EPA, or they can pick products that meet any other voluntary standard developed by a number of different groups. It’s this latter option that Kyle fears “spells the beginning of the end for EPEAT”.

“The use of a so-called consensus process is no guarantee that the standard will be a strong standard, or provide meaningful guidance for federal purchasers to identify greener products,” she said. “These consensus processes are easily dominated by companies that make and sell the products – and the chemical companies that supply them – despite other stakeholders’ participation. We see this time and time again.”

Kyle and other green electronics advocates are concerned that the removal of EPEAT from the executive order came at the urging of lobbyists from the technology industry.

But Rick Goss, senior vice president for environment and sustainability at the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group which represents leading technology companies, denied these concerns.

“Our companies have long been leaders in the development of green products and we continue to advocate for robust green procurement programs that raise the bar as technology improves,” he said. “As the largest customer for technology products and services, the US government’s purchasing power can drive a marketplace that rewards the companies that pioneer green innovations.”

He also said removing EPEAT from the executive order does not mean the government has turned its back on green electronics. Rather, the move opens up the marketplace to include other competitive programs and standards, which increases transparency.

“The president’s order continues to raise the threshold and enhance the competition to make products and services that are greener, more energy efficient, and more sustainable,” Goss said.

Kyle and others are calling for the government to continue using EPEAT as its standard when buying electronics, at least until the EPA recommends a different ratings system.

The Green Electronics Council said it is confident that federal agencies will continue to use it when buying products, adding the executive order likely won’t mean the end of EPEAT.

“The standards that the Green Electronics Council administers through the EPEAT program have proven extremely valuable in promoting greener electronics design and more responsible management of electronics at the end of their useful life,” said John Lingelbach, executive director of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, which promotes responsible recycling of electronic products.

“The program is well established and I anticipate it will continue to grow despite the recent executive order.”