I started covering green technologies in 2003. Since then, I've changed my mind about a lot of things. Electric cars, for instance, will come to market in larger numbers earlier than I anticipated.
But there are three opinions that have yet to change. One, solar thermal energy will play a larger-than-predicted role in energy production. Two, oil companies and large construction companies, like them or not, will become perhaps the biggest green companies.
And three, the carbon footprint is incredibly annoying.
Granted, this last one puts me in a small minority (even in my own company). But I believe the focus on carbon approaches the problem of getting consumers to think about the environment the wrong way.
Initially, the carbon footprint bugged me because it seemed only to be a status symbol for people who couldn't afford a better one. It was really all about smug one-upsmanship. "And I wrapped your baby's shower gift in paper I made from our old lawn clippings as a way to save the Earth," a carbon footprint-ophile might say. Then they'd look at you like you just gave the child a $50 gift certificate for the Pep Boys.
One of my favorite moments along these lines occurred at a conference in 2006 when eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar wondered aloud whether oil executives "can sleep well at night." The conference took place in Southern California, in an over-air conditioned room filled with people who did not fly down from Silicon Valley in solar powered jet packs. I'm sure the guys from Chevron slept fine.
But over the years I've discovered two other major, more onerous, problems with carbon footprint analysis for consumers.
The first is the indirect nature of carbon consumption. It simply does not impact consumers in a direct way. Think of Walmart's edict last week that it will require vendors to identify the carbon content of their products. That microwave-ready jug of Dinty Moore Scalloped Potatoes and Ham isn't going to taste any better (or, for that matter, any less resemble raw petroleum byproducts) because it was sterilized in synthetic biogas-powered boilers.
Instead, consumers will make shopping decisions that impact them directly, like price, color, nutrition, and whether or not there is a cartoon character on the label. A lot of marketing execs these days like to claim that consumers will gravitate to low carbon products. Less than 5 percent will. The remaining 95 percent will merely react in panic and desperation and grab the first stick of deodorant that looks like it will prevent them from smelling.
Admittedly, with some products, carbon reduction can lead to benefits. The Black and Decker Electric High Performance Leaf Hog Blower makes a lot less noise than the gas-powered models. But most of the time the benefits are abstract.
The JT Tac 5 Recon Paintball Kit, Camo Finish – Now more Eco-Friendly!
Heed these warnings well, marketing people. I am a father of an eight year old. If you can offer me frozen corn dogs that actually contain some beneficial protein content, I won't think too hard about how many native species you eliminated. It will be a shame I will come to live with.
Oh, and count the labels. Here's a list of 299 ecolabels from Ecolabelling.org.
Second, there is the problem of group dynamics. Right now, computer companies do not, for all practical purposes, use bio-based plastics. Some manufacturers like Fujitsu have a few models in limited production, but are concerned about durability and warranties. Thus, the energy content of laptops in some regards is static.
But when bioplastics pass the durability tests, or when flash-based hard drives hit a particular price point, these technologies will be adopted en masse. Carbon accounting and labeling essentially becomes irrelevant when everyone moves in lockstep. An eco-label is a nice reminder, but it plays on the fringes.
You will likely next see this phenomenon in action in large screen TVs. California plans to impose regulations that will lead to TVs that consume 33 percent less power than they do now by 2011 and 49 percent by 2013. Some trade groups have already filed objections. TV manufacturers and component makers, however, are already well on their way to cutting power consumption.
If anything, carbon labeling could add costs by piling on administration without a direct, measurable payback. In some companies, the Sarbanes-Oxley executive is being put in charge of carbon. Different beans, same bean counter. They should just dub them the CAO (Chief Annoyance Officer) and be done with it.
So what is the solution? Change it to a focus on energy efficiency. Walmart needs to tell its suppliers that they need to cut their current prices by, let's say, 8 percent. Then it tells them that it can do that by cutting down on embedded energy, adopting alternative materials, and reducing transportation. Oh, and we happen to have a copy of a best practices manual right here.
Then Walmart gets to go on TV and say how it and its suppliers have eliminated the same amount of energy from their operations that Qatar pumps out of its natural gas wells in a year.
And then the company can remind consumers how it saved them money through the plan.