Gadgets, Gadgets, Who's the Greenest of Them All?

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed Dell as one of the worst toxic offenders. This is not actually the case and has been corrected. 

Want to be kind to the planet and your portfolio at the same time? The Fool shows you how in our special series on Earth-friendly investing.

Ban toxins, baleful pests
Baldurs of this day crave.
Away, accursed blights!
Attend to Mother Earth.
Rich detail rolling in,
Relate, explain, define.
Always some accept their burden --
Another few repel the same.

It just feels right to have Earth Day fall in National Poetry Month, doesn't it? That stanza of loose Viking-style malahattr is meant to bring the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics to life for you, and today, we'll talk about how the planet's largest electronics manufacturers are living up to their environmental responsibilities.

Bromulated hubba wha ...?
The first version of that guide to environmentally-friendly electronics firms I just mentioned was published by Greenpeace last summer to highlight a couple of urgent needs. For one, electronics manufacturers should adhere to strict manufacturing practices that eliminate toxins like PVC and brominated flame retardants (BFR) from our everyday electronics. Second, consumers need to know which gadgets are environmentally safe and which are less friendly to Mother Earth.

So what's the big deal? In the late 1970s, BFRs replaced PCB as the leading fireproofing additive in our electronics and fabrics. While the new solution is generally less disastrous than the old one, it still isn't a silver bullet. The long-term health effects are not well known, but it's clear that these chemicals do bad things to marine wildlife if released into the groundwater. The electronics industry is the largest consumer of these flame-proofing additives, using about 34,000 metric tons of just one type in 1999 alone.

And PVC plastics may be fine as water and sewage pipes, but in your electronics, you can't wrap the material around wires without adding some hazardous chemicals to the mix. Also, Greenpeace claims that PVC in all forms can release deadly dioxines when processed by today's waste handling systems. That's particularly likely if the material is burned, as happens in waste incinerators and some landfills.

These issues are important enough that Greenpeace concedes the importance of lowering power use and improving manufacturing processes to minimize environmental impact, but sets these issues entirely aside to focus on these chemicals alone when ranking the environmental friendliness of electronics makers.

The results are in
The Greenpeace ranking criteria call for low toxin levels, enthusiastic recycling programs, and plentiful consumer information, in falling order of importance. So where do the chips fall in the final list? The answers may surprise you.

No. 1 in the latest update, up from dead last in the previous iteration, is Chinese PC manufacturer Lenovo. The company pleases Greenpeace on every point, except that you can't yet buy a Lenovo system completely free of BFRs and PVC. But environmental information on its website is plentiful, a worldwide recycling program for Lenovo and old IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) systems is in place, and the company seems to pay attention when its deficiencies are pointed out.

Finnish cell phone maven Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) takes second place. Some of its current models are indeed toxin-free, and the phase-out timeline is clearly stated along with solid documentation of environmental concerns and procedures to handle them. The company lost points for substandard recycling support, and most products do still have unpleasant chemicals inside, but it's generally a positive report.

The same goes for Sony Ericsson, as the Swedish-Japanese joint venture is heading the right way just like its Finnish colleague. The biggest issue here is unclear or incomplete consumer info.

The midsection of the list contains companies like Toshiba, Samsung, and Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) as a stand-alone consumer electronics designer. It's a mixed bag on this level, with positives and negatives flying every which way, so we'll skip to the bottom where some familiar names lurk around.

Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) is another environmental leader according to Greenpeace. The main strike against the company is that it doesn't offer any "clean" products at all today. There's a stated commitment to eliminating both PVC and BFRs by 2009, though, so don't mess too much with Texas.

Down below
Then there's no stated commitment to nazmat-free production at Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) , says the report -- though some of its phones are good to go, today.

We have an odd duck in Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) . The company has a lowly ranking here because of weakly stated compliance timelines and a lack of the untainted products Greenpeace wants to see. On the other hand, HP is a leader in low-power computer systems, and the first to sell systems compliant with the strict Energy Star 4.0 standards. But energy savings don't factor in to these scores, so near the bottom of the pile HP goes.

Green Apples?
The worst toxic offender, Greenpeace thinks, turns out to be Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) . The motivation is harsh: "While other laggards have moved upwards in the Guide, Apple has made no changes to its policies or practices since the launch of the Guide in August 2006. The company scores badly on almost all criteria."

Apple does get points for reporting on the amount of electronic waste recycled, but even then, Greenpeace complains that it's measured by weight, not as a percentage of products sold. You just can't please some people.

A few blogs rushed to Apple's defense, and maybe the researchers did go a bit rough on the iGadget master. There was a bit of vindication offered in a follow-up report, where Greenpeace took apart four laptops of various brands and analyzed each component inside for toxin content. That time, HP was the clear-cut laggard -- it was the only system where the analysts found traces of lead, and though the Dell, the MacBook Pro, and the Sony notebooks all had a bit of chromium and bromides, the HP system had the highest levels. The Mac was within acceptable limits, even though it was an older model purchased before stricter industry standards were imposed last summer.

Foolish fade-out
It's pretty clear that as our daily lives grow more and more dependent on electronic gadgets, the processes of their manufacture become increasingly important. Who makes the best or worst cell phone or DVD player may not matter much to the average consumer today, but as the standards and restrictions grow tighter, the companies that voluntarily hold themselves to higher standards will have easier and less costly paths to compliance, and to putting products on store shelves.

So if you have a truly long-term investing horizon, you may do well to pay attention to these rankings and reports. But for the time being, the biggest problem with eco-friendly electronics standards is the lack of coherent evaluation principles. Should you prefer Lenovo for its relative detox status, or Hewlett Packard because you'll save energy? Decisions, decisions ...

Dell is both a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick and a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Try either service free for 30 days to see which stocks offer the stronger investment thesis for the PC prodigy.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here, but both of his laptops are HPs. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure is both green and perdurable.


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