Some thoughts and reports from the Greener Gadgets conference, on Greenwashing, Green Marketing, and the One Laptop Per Child engineering.

Chris Jordan showed some of his photographs of consumer waste.  He ended, by making a plea for cool green gadgets.

"There is a hesitation right now.  There is a problem with the green movement. It is having trouble reaching critical mass.  Everyone is waiting for everyone else to do it. Its frightening to see. This is the time when it has to happen. It cant wait another generation. Its not happening because it isn't cool yet.  The leaders of the green movement, like all Al Gore and Bill McKibben: I love them to death, but they're not cool ...  The electronics industry is cool. The new cell phones are twice as cool. The electronics industry is so cool, it has been given a free pass.  The environmentalists all drive around their Priuses, are vegetarian, and carry around their water bottles, but we all buy the bitchenist new cellphones, like that!"

I'm not convinced this is entirely true, and however uplifting this is (and how much he is clearly aware of the problem of buying and disposing), it kind of set the tone for the day: we need to buy new things, and these things will be cooler and better, but we will buy them. 

Mary Lou Jepson of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) gave a brilliant overview of the technical innovations behind the OLPC that make it energy efficient. The three key energy innovations are that the OLPC is really low power, built for a five year lifespan, and easily repairable. The key components are the combination of a screen that stays on without power going to it, and a hardware architecture that turns off the motherboard when it is not in use.  As she said of the Apple laptop at the podium, "What is the motherboard doing on? There are no pixels moving. The motherboard has no reason to be on!" Mary Lou Jepson also spoke about green marketing, saying "people are trying to make a buck off of green.  Green is actually cheaper.  Green isn't about (sigh) buying more stuff." She was also the only person who spoke about extending lifecycles, proposing to the industry reps in the audience: "Let's add the life of the unit to the environmental specs of the unit."

Jepson also spoke about the need for the change to come from engineers making hardware platforms, saying "If we rely on industrial designers to lead the green revolution in electronics and gadgets ... we will fail." While she clearly proved that, as an engineer, she can do things that designers cannot do (make systems consume less power from the inside,) she should not be so designer-phobic: I played with one of her laptops in the Eyebeam R&D lab, and didn't get what the big deal was.  I understood that it was small because it was for smaller people with smaller kid fingers, but i had trouble with the interface -- It felt badly designed; intuitive enough, but could have been better, in the hands of a better designer...

During the lifecycle analysis panel, greenwashing is the bogeyman in the room.  Everyone is talking around the edges of it. Afraid they are doing it.  Implying that others are doing it (but not them.)

Andrew Dent from Materials Connexion suggested leasing products, so that companies are responsible, and the companies are knowledgeable about the materials so they can recycle. Renee St. Denis from HP responds, this is normal at the Enterprise levels, but more education is needed at the consumer level to make this happen (leasing is planned obsolescence, right?).

Andrew Dent commented offhand, "Who keeps their phone for more than a couple of years?" What no one wants to address, or seems to be able to address is the fact that the electronics industry, (and our consumer economy as a whole,) is built off of planned obsolescence. Jeff Omelchuck from EPEAT got the closest to addressing this problem when he talked about the fact that software gets bigger to drive the need for faster hardware, and that any push to cut that down, shakes the foundations of the whole industry and thus the software and hardware industry is very resistant to any change in this process.  As Douglas Smith from Sony said, "Our products are a lifestyle project.  No one needs an HD TV. Your old TV works just fine. But when you see an HD TV, you just want it."

Colin aka No Impact Man got the mic and asked the question that was being begged to be asked (to paraphrase): Why are all the industry people advocating buying new products and continuing the cycle of planned obsolescence. He was given a rousing round of applause (the only applause given to a question all day). Predictably, no one could answer the question...