The technology industry has a growing public relations problem. It's an energy hog, producing carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to those of the aviation sector.
Even though the massive collection of computer servers that drive the Internet is not as visible as airplanes, the tech industry produces about 725 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents a year, representing about 2 per cent of the world's total emissions, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
As consumers and businesses generate more photos, videos and files to be stored online, data centres sprawl to house all the information, helping increase those carbon emissions by 6 per cent annually, and putting the industry on track to generate 3 per cent of world output by 2020, McKinsey calculates.
If most consumers have not yet grasped the implications, some of the world's biggest tech companies have, and they are moving smartly to head off a backlash before it happens. Some are even trying to score a marketing advantage with greenness.
Last year, Dell Inc. publicly set itself a goal to "become the greenest on Earth." The initiative includes planting trees for customers to offset emissions tied to their new PCs, offering free recycling of computers worldwide, adding power-management features to products and powering the company's Round Rock, Tex., headquarters entirely with green energy.
Rival Apple Inc. also recycles old computers at no charge, while Lenovo Group Ltd. is using recycled water bottles for some of the plastic in its ThinkPad laptops.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, one of the largest technology trade expositions, dozens of companies competed to promote their products as environmentally friendly. Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, Europe's biggest maker of consumer electronics, walked off with the "best in show" award for its EcoTV, which uses nearly half the energy of standard HDTVs, is lead-free and comes in recycled packaging.
Perhaps no tech player is embracing the green mantra as aggressively as Nortel Networks Corp. This spring, the manufacturer of networking gear launched a negative advertising campaign against Cisco Systems Inc., urging companies to avoid what it termed "The Cisco Energy Tax."
The TV, print and Internet-run ads play on fears of runaway energy costs and claim that a data network built with Nortel products consumes up to 40 per cent less energy than one made with Cisco technology.
"Over a five-year period, businesses have paid $6.1-billion more in energy costs to power and cool Cisco networks than they would have had they used a comparable Nortel configuration," the company said in a news release last week, as it prepares to take the campaign global.
"From a marketing angle we really are taking on Cisco," Nettleton Payne, Nortel's vice-president of business development for North America, said in a recent interview. "This isn't about slamming Cisco, it's about showing an advantage Nortel really has."
Cisco promotes its own environmental initiatives. For example, the company says its TelePresence video conference product is reducing the need for executives to fly. On Nortel's campaign, Cisco takes the high ground, saying its policy is not to comment on competitors. A spokeswoman did say, however, that it is important for the tech industry to develop a standard for "green" classification.
Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with Yankee Group in Boston, agrees that without an industry standard it is difficult to make fair comparisons. Nortel's equipment definitely uses less power than Cisco's, but Cisco's products do more, he said.
"It's like asking if a [Toyota]Prius [hybrid vehicle]is more energy efficient than a bus. The Prius uses less gas, but if you have to move a football team across town, the bus is more efficient," he said.
Nortel's simplified message, however, seems to resonate with potential customers. Since launching the energy-tax ads, the company says it has generated at least six new opportunities from clients who previously had refused to even consider Nortel products.
Nortel sales reps say the campaign "is the best sales tool they have seen in years," Mr. Payne said.
Technology companies' efforts to address environmental issues still have a long way to go, according to Greenpeace, which puts out a guide to greener electronics products every three months. With the challenge, "Who will be first to go green?" the group rates 18 of the largest players in the industry on three points: reducing hazardous materials, recycling used products, and climate and energy practices.
Cellphone maker Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB ranks first on the list, but scored only 5.1 out of a possible 10. Microsoft Corp. and Nintendo Co. Ltd. sit at the bottom, with scores of only 2.2 and 0.8 respectively.
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