Guest post by Robert Frisbee, EPEAT CEO
Last July, the number of people writing and talking about EPEAT skyrocketed when Apple temporarily left – and then rejoined — the EPEAT registry. Clearly, lots of people are passionate about Apple products AND about protecting the environment.
Questions were raised at that time about specific design features of the newer ‘ultralight’ products and about the structure of EPEAT’s registration and verification programs.. We launched a series of investigations to address the design issues immediately, and the last of those investigations is coming to a close shortly. I wanted to address the broader questions raised about how we approach these and any questions about products’ conformance with the EPEAT system’s requirements.
At EPEAT, we know that real environmental improvement occurs when market forces are harnessed to drive change to scale. Our vision is to work cooperatively with manufacturers and computer purchasers to reward those who design and deliver more environmentally-friendly electronics. We do this by enabling end users to make better-informed decisions about their electronics purchases.
EPEAT’s aggressive and far-reaching criteria cover the full life of the covered products. In a sector as competitive and fast-paced as the tech industry, including manufacturers in the process of system development ensures that we leverage their ongoing innovation and make an impact on the products coming to market today and tomorrow. However our criteria and system are defined by a wide array of stakeholders including large purchasers, environmental advocates, technology researchers, recyclers, and government in addition to manufacturers.
During development of the IEEE 1680 standard these stakeholders carefully considered the unique characteristics of the high-tech sector: 1) rapid technology development, 2) very complex and continually morphing global supply chains, and 3) high variability in the configurations of individual products (i.e. components manufactured by totally different suppliers are found inside the “same product” over time). They recognized that a one shot certification before an electronic product is registered and rated is, to put it mildly, fundamentally inadequate to assess IT equipment as it will be delivered to the purchaser. Instead they created a system where manufacturers can register their products in EPEAT independently, but all product declarations are subject to rigorous oversight, with investigation of any declaration possible at any time, with no warning.
The stakeholders recognized that ongoing, and surprise, surveillance is the best way to identify potential problems and address rapidly changing products. They also judged that fear of exposure – all findings of nonconformance are made public – would drive manufacturers to monitor and maintain their own registrations as products changed over time. Think of highly successful systems like the IRS – not every tax return is audited, but fear of audits, and the significant consequences they can entail, keep the vast majority of filers honest.
Stakeholders also helped structure the EPEAT system to eliminate many of the potential conflicts of interest inherent in the certification and ratings space. Criteria are developed by a broad outside stakeholder group, not by hand-picked experts; manufacturers pay by the year instead of by the product, so disqualifying a product registration has no impact on finances; verification investigations are carried out by independent auditors and judged by an independent panel blind to product and company identification.
In this new era of fast paced innovation in sustainable design, it’s critical that we move away from old black and white paradigms – assumptions that “all manufacturers are greenwashing” or “certification organizations bend their findings to suit their clients” – while being creative and thoughtful about driving and rewarding effective new approaches.
Like the tech marketplace it serves, EPEAT relies on collaboration and transparent communications, streamlined tools and approaches to accomplish our work in the most elegant and effective way possible. We are always learning, and developing new ideas, new criteria, and new techniques for supporting design of electronic products to truly accelerate the world’s transition to sustainability.