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21.05.2018

What eco labels on electronics should I care about?

What eco labels on electronics should I care about?

By Alejandro Santacreu, CEO & Founder of Circular Devices Oy.

The conscious buyers of this world are an emerging group that has been gaining more and more purchasing power. Public concern with sustainability issues started almost one century ago with the rise of the organic food movement back in 1924. It took several decades to become the trend we all know today. Nowadays we all care about eating healthy, at least as much as our force of will and our wallets allow us to jump into green, eco, fair, sustainable food. 

The eco movement is spreading horizontally driven by conscious buyers demanding the same quality and commitment from other verticals too: cars, textile, and ultimately electronics.  

Why ecolabels matter and how they influence new product developments like the PuzzlePhone, and what they mean to consumers.  

True. The consumer electronics eco label landscape is a bit of a carnival requiring a bit of effort to be deciphered, to get it right. Back to basics: all the eco labels’ intent is to highlight and incentivise the eco friendliness of products, and the brands and organizations behind them. 

Everybody knows eco food trademarks such as: UTZ, Rainforest alliance, FSC, SQFand many others. But what are the equivalent for those in consumer electronics?

In this post we will go through some of the most popular eco labels in consumer electronics. But before getting there it is important to understand that not all the labels are compulsory.

As consumers we must be able to identify the (few) that are, from the ones entirely voluntary, and what understand meaning. We should never buy anything without the compulsory ones, but consumers can be vigilant and check whether those eco labels are legit or not, in other words: did this product I am about to buy actually earned this badge of honour? 

The compulsory labels are issued and granted by official bodies, and/or in cooperation with independent 3rd parties such as certified laboratories and auditors verifying that the product, or in some cases the organisation and the supply chain behind them, are compliant with the eco label’s criteria. And sometimes, especially with compulsory eco labels, some mean guys decide to simply stamp the label on their products without going through that process, or what’s even worse, knowing they would never pass the bar, sometimes because they failed already and they don’t want to fix what was wrong.

So yes, that sounds bad. Yes, eco labels can be just stolen logos. And yes, “The Eco Label Police” needs you. If you see something, say something. And sadly, nope, this is not the first time that consumer electronics brands lie to you, e.g.: Some Android phone manufacturers are lying to users about missed security updates- The Verge. April 2018. 

By knowing who is behind each eco label you, we - consumers - can actively check their usually open data bases to cross-check if they truly earned their stripes.

For the PuzzlePhone’s R&D (I know, it is taking us ages to complete it) - which aims to become the truly sustainable product, and platform, designed to last up to 10 years - it is a bit tricky to get the acknowledgment this innovation deserves. Not pretending to sound pitiful here. It is simply that the state of play of eco labels for consumer electronics, moreover for smartphones, mirror the “Design for Planned Obsolescence” behind decisions such as glueing all components, making batteries irreplaceable, or chosing fragile materials arguing aesthetics over functionality or durability.

Thankfully eco labels, and their criteria, are living beings that are updated to adapt to new times. But for that, times have to change first. This creates a chicken and egg situation where the incentive for more sustainable, durable and repairable devices does not exist because the reference device defined the eco label scoring ceiling without room for improvement, so the criteria will only be changed by a better device but the eco label does not incentivise the development of the better device...  #Catch22

How to get out of that Catch-22? One way - we love - is iFixit’s way: let’s assume there are enough consumers interested in fixing things. Make a business case out of it by creating the repair manuals nobody offers, and then running ads on your site (iFixit does not run ads), or by selling the tools required for the repairs, you make profit out of a good thing: the people can now fix their broken stuff. Eventually, the iFixit repairability index became a recognized factor influencing purchase decisions among an increasing number of conscious buyers. And an ad hoc eco label has born. Ta da!  

Intentional or not, this strategy has provided iFixit leverage to influence while other eco labels criteria updates are still being discussed. This creates an opportunity to escape from chickens and eggs, if you believe - as we do - that iFixit stands for more sustainable devices. 

All this sounds great but this logic can be challenged. iFixit core business is repairs. Circular Devices business is to create a modular platform that is not only repairable but moreover upgradeable and customizable.

What if the most sustainable device we can build is not one that is meant to be repaired someday, but one that will never eve break? An indestructible modular device made of subsystems that are exchangeable yet impossible to disassemble.

These hypothesis can be analyzed even if they do not physically exist. With tools for evaluating things like the “Life Cycle Assessment” or LCA, we can predict how good or bad such R&D brief would be. And, based on our ongoing R&D, we know these solutions might actually score higher than anything else (yep), and, if we are not investing more on them, is because they are not technically feasible, (yet). But they might be in the future. I know, this sounds a bit evil, that’s also why we are not a fan of this path, but data is strong on this one, believe me.

The funny thing - a bit sad to be honest - is that an indestructible device that never needs to be repaired might not get a higher scoring than an iPhone, in any of the existing eco labels, because their criteria, their measuring rules and tables, end where the indestructible innovation begins.

Of course that any company who believes there are enough users who are fed up with “design to fail” gear can give a chance to R&D such devices, but we can’t deny that it would be even more encouraging if the stars were aligned and lighting up a greener path. 

As you can see there is always a tradeoff. Your R&D decisions can affect your business opportunities. “Design for Eco labels” can pay off, but it can become a trap too if its next criteria update is not as rewarding as you were expecting. This can turn into very tangible business flops: what if you were expecting to be the best tender for a public purchase where a particular and compulsory eco label was supposed to reward your R&D efforts on making a more sustainable device? This is not just an hypothetical case. It gets very real.           

Are eco labels regulated? How many different eco labels on electronics exist? How are they classified?

There are more than 80 different eco labels for electronic devices all around the world. Each eco label is different, their criteria can overlap or simply measure different aspects, hence only an educated consumer can take an informed decision, and this is another reason why eco labelling takes so long to be fully embraced: who has the time for this? Right? Totally understandable. As it is also understandable that we all are starting to find the time when we witness first hand, in our wallets and in our bodies, the destructive effect of toxic electronic junk.

All the eco labels are regulated by their owners. The stronger and most relevant ones for a producer are the compulsory ones, which are either owned by the government, or enforced by the government but owned by a private organisation.

In some cases those organisations are NGOs, in some cases they are for-profit private liabilities. In any case compulsory eco labels are always surrounded by lobbying, which is not necessarily bad despite the negative connotation that lobbying has earned, but we have to admit the shadow of conflict of interests is always around.

If there are compulsory eco labels, then, you guessed it right, they can be categorized as compulsory or voluntary.

Whether they belong to one category - or the other, both can be maintained, sponsored, and embraced by all kind of actors from a wide stakeholders map who all have something in common: they are all concerned about sustainability, financials, and a fair trade-offbetween Mother Earth and their clients.

For both categories the end goal is the match-making of buyers and producers of sustainable products, but perhaps a worthy communication exercise could be to agree on a common dictionary so both sides can understand better the trade-offs involved.

This is what the eco labels you might find engraved on your next purchase mean:

Compulsory labels are those a producer must be able to showcase in order to sell their products lawfully. There are not so many of those, and the most essential ones can be found engraved on the back of every single product (or behind the rear casing if any, e.g.: under the lid of the battery compartment).

RoHS: 

The Restriction of HazardousSubstances Directive 2002/95/EC, (RoHS 1), short for Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, was adopted in February 2003 by the European Union. (SourceWikipedia). For the buyer seeing this compulsory trademark on the back of their new purchase brings the peace of mind there are not (too many) toxic substancesinside. Consumer electronics remain toxic enough to make a (real) crime to toss them into your backyard, but making RoHS compliance compulsory the public authorities drew a line securing some minimums. EDIT (May 22nd, 2018):RoHS compliance is compulsory in Europe, RoHS-marking isn’t. There is no official RoHS label, actually RoHS compliance is covered by the CE mark. And the 2002/2003 version of the RoHS has been replaced in 2011 by a revised version: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1399998664957&uri=CELEX:02011L0065-20140129 , see right column of the Wikipedia entry (and actually with this revision RoHS moved under the CE regime, before that no labelling / marking at all was required).

WEEE: 

Have you seen that icon that looks like a crossed trash bin on the back of your iPhone? That’s WEEE. Or according to the official description: “WEEE is waste electrical and electronic equipment. It isend-of-lifeelectrical and electronic equipment and covers virtually everything with a plug or battery. It is classed as either household or non-household WEEE.”. And it is important because: “All electrical wastecontains chemicalsthat are harmful to the environment. When WEEEis simply dumped in landfills, over time the products decay and leak toxinsinto the earth and our water systems. This can lead to the toxins entering our food chain and ultimately, into us.”.

CE Marking: 

“CE marking is a certification mark that indicates conformitywith health, safety, and environmental protectionstandardsfor products sold within the European Economic Area (EEA). The CE marking is also found on products sold outside the EEA that are manufactured in, or designed to be sold in, the EEA.”.

Voluntary eco labels you can find on the products:

Blue Angel: 

“The Blue Angel is the ecolabel of the federal government of Germany since 1978. The Blue Angel sets high standards for environmentally friendlyproduct design and has proven itself over the past 40 years as a reliable guide for a more sustainable consumption.” (Source). It has never become popular outside Germany, although it has been used as a benchmark for many other ecolabels.

Nordic Ecolabel or "Swan”:

 the Blue Angel of the Nordic countries. “Demonstrates that a product is a good environmental choice. The "Swan" symbol, as it is known in Nordic countries, is available for 65 product groups. The Swan checks that products fulfill certain criteria using methods such as samples from independent laboratories, certificates and control visits.” (Source).

UL Energy Efficiency Verified: 

“UL (Underwriters Laboratory) provides a service for the verification of products that meet the appropriate requirements for energy efficiency and which are also Listed or Recognized by UL. Through UL's Energy Efficiency Certification Program, manufacturers can show consumers, competitors, and regulators that their products are helping lower energy demand. Products must comply with the appropriate energy efficiency requirements of the United States, Mexico and/or Canada and the UL Listing or Recognition requirements.”  (Source).

Energy star labels: 

“a voluntary US government-backed program dedicated to helping individuals protect the environment through energy efficiency. The ENERGY STAR mark is the national symbol for energy efficiency, making it easy for consumers and businesses to identify high-quality, energy-efficient products, homes, and commercial and industrial buildings. ENERGY STAR distinguishes what is efficient/better for the environment without sacrificing features or performance. Products that earn the ENERGY STAR mark prevent greenhouse gas emissions by meeting strict energy-efficiency guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For purposes of this survey, the questions answered will be limited to ENERGY STAR products.”. (Source).

EPEAT Registry:

“EPEAT rates products on a lifecycle basis. The system addresses the elimination of toxic substances, the use of recycled and recyclable materials, product design for recycling, product longevity, energy efficiency, corporate performance and packaging attributes. Products are rated Gold, Silver or Bronze depending upon the number of environmental criteria they meet.” (Source).

Emerging de factostandards

We could not end this post without stressing, again, the most promising dark horse: iFixit’s repairability scoring. It gives you an accurate idea on how repairable the device is, which equals to a rough estimate for your expectations on its operational lifetime.

Although iFixit does not have a “breakability” index, neither a “durability one”, their vast expertise and track record on who and why things break or fail, reflects in their duly teardowns, and clearly influences their scoring. 

The key to make your next gizmo a worthy investment 

Pay attention to the eco labels. And if your best choice lacks most of them, then the least you can do is ask the brand why they are not running the extra mile for any of the voluntary eco labels. A simple tweet, if it comes from thousands of consumers, is a strong indicator on where they should put their R&D money next time. If you want to buy different, act different.

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