Eco-Scoring: How EPEAT ratings encourage a more sustainable tech future

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) has come a long way since being introduced in 2006. Managed by the non-profit organization Green Electronics Council and originally commissioned by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the EPEAT algorithm helps governments, institutions, consumers, and other purchasers evaluate the effect of a product on the environment. During a time when there are increasingly more electronic products being developed, many of which can have undesired consequences on the environment, tools such as the EPEAT are crucial.

The EPEAT can help both companies and buyers contribute to sustainability through its comprehensive ranking system. As an eco-label for the IT sector, it is specifically aimed at enabling consumers to make conscientious decisions when buying electronics, which in turn pressures manufactures to create sustainable products.

What Are EPEAT Ratings?

The EPEAT labeling system is based on various sustainability categories, such as use of post consumer recycled plastic; responsible end-of-life management; substance management; design for repair, reuse and recycling; and so on. These sustainability categories are applied to product categories including: Computers and Displays, Imaging Equipment, Mobile Phones, Photovoltaic Modules and Inverters (PVMI), Televisions, and Servers.

The EPEAT is already impressive with its environmental criteria for different products, and its wide range of performance categories creates a well-rounded picture for buyers wanting to be informed. It could likely be improved even further by expanding the environmental criteria to involve a range so consumers can see just how extensively a product meets each of the requirements.

Here is a look at the EPEAT’s environmental criteria for computers:

If a device meets all the required criteria and a certain percentage of optional criteria, it is awarded one of three possible ratings:

  • EPEAT Bronze: A device meets all required criteria.
  • EPEAT Silver: A device meets all required criteria and at least 50% of the optional criteria
  • EPEAT Gold: A device meets all required criteria and at least 75% of the optional criteria.

The EPEAT is especially valuable to three groups: purchasers, manufacturers, and environmental advocates. Purchasers will find the verified and credible tool easy to use, providing a single source to identify qualified products without the need to perform technical analysis. Manufacturers are benefited by the harmonized standard and no delay in time to market, while environmental advocates are presented with verified manufacturer claims and an impactful tool for environmental leadership. The EPEAT-approved Conformity Assurance Bodies (CABs), which are third party testing and certification organizations, provide third party verification of manufacturing claims by conducting a set of comprehensive review processes. These processes involve registration materials and the analysis of manufacturer responses to verification questions.

Image: Stakeholder Categories, Global Electronics Council

The EPEAT is a good example of how public sector demand can lead to new product markets, as well as stimulate eco-innovation in the private sector. Consumers can feel confident in the criteria, which were born out of multi-year stakeholder processes and continue to undergo improvements. The stakeholder processes involve hundreds of representatives from governmental, environmental, research, and manufacturing sectors (see figure inset). Public and private bulk consumers also contribute to the processes, and EPEAT partner organizations provide product rating information in their catalogs and train sales staff to support EPEAT purchasing requirements. All of this leads to raised consumer awareness and creates far more transparent products.

EPEAT-registration services are provided by multiple international organizations, and this spans across North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Each one of the organizations has auditors that are qualified to evaluate the conformance claims of electronics manufacturers and supplies. The EPEAT Policy Manual states that auditors become qualified to perform conformity assurance of product categories by attending Initial EPEAT Auditor Training, which they then have to follow up by passing the Initial EPEAT Auditor Exam for each product category. Each product category requires separate training and exams.

Towards Accountability

The impact of the EPEAT was felt immediately following its release in 2006 with 60 products from three separate PC and Display manufacturers. In 2007, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 1342 requiring all US Federal agencies looking to purchase computer systems to use EPEAT. This was then renewed in 2009 by President Obama, which preceded Executive Order 13514 requiring all federal agencies to purchase at least 95 percent of their electronics based on EPEAT status when applicable.

In 2012, the EPEAT’s ability to hold private companies accountable to the public was demonstrated when Apple’s 2012 Retina Display Macbook Pro failed to meet the EPEAT’s criteria for disassembly. That laptop was subsequently named by as “the least repairable, least recyclable computer encountered in more than a decade of disassembling electronics.” Greenpeace followed by denouncing Apple and saying the company was “greenwashing,” or spinning its PR to appear as an environmentally friendly company.

Apple responded by pulling all of the company’s 39 certified desktop computers, monitors, and laptops from the registry. During this controversy, the City of San Francisco announced that it would no longer be buying Macs following Apple’s withdrawal, and that none of the company’s products would be allowed in the city’s 50 agencies. However, this did not last long as Apple realized it would have trouble surviving without a positive EPEAT rating, so it rejoined and relisted all of its qualifying products on the registry.

As for algorithms and tools that have a positive societal impact, the EPEAT is arguably one of the most important in this regard. Without such a tool, consumers would have a difficult time being informed about what goes into the countless technological products they use in their daily lives. It creates much needed standards for electronic products, which is important for consumers all around the world looking to make informed and sustainable purchasing decisions. Given how electronic products are often produced under harmful environmental conditions, and in a way that makes them hard to be recycled, EPEAT incentivizes organizations to develop more ecologically responsible products.

Improving EPEAT

Though largely a force for good, the EPEAT is not without its flaws and fair share of criticisms. One of the more concerning questions surrounding the EPEAT is whether or not the criteria are applied equally across all organizations. The labeling registry has been criticized by organizations like Greenpeace for “caving in” to pressure from leading manufacturers, especially Apple.

Back in 2012, the EPEAT undertook a thorough review of five separate “ultra-thin” notebooks from Apple, Lenovo, Samsung, and Toshiba, which had been proven to be difficult to recycle. The registry eventually approved them, which confused many consumers and businesses looking to get clear direction from the EPEAT. One of the reasons for the approval was that the new products could indeed be disassembled. However, this required the removal of components from the gadgets, which most consumers would be unwilling to do given product warranties. Events such as this undermine the EPEAT’s credibility and begin to hurt the public’s trust in such systems.

Despite these valid criticisms, it is more important than ever for technology companies to be held accountable in various ways, especially when it comes to environmental sustainability. A comprehensive and trustworthy labeling system like the EPEAT moves us in that direction as it pushes industry leaders, producers, and suppliers to meet the highest standards of environmental and social sustainability.

The EPEAT should continue to improve its rating criteria and assure consumers they can trust the process. If it takes more steps in this direction, the EPEAT could prove to be a glowing example of how the government can make a difference with such technologies, as it helps create a far more transparent private sector, which is key as we progress further as a technology-driven world.

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