This post is going to sound cynical, but not nearly as cynical as the corporate response to the whole green movement, especially where technology is concerned.
Last week I reported on a half dozen eco-friendly gadgets and technologies. Over the last few days I've had a chance to reconsider the dual (and usually incompatible) altruistic/capitalist nature of these products and, by extension all so-called "green" devices.
First let me say I am a serial recycler. I never mix glass, plastic and metal even though New York City authorities permit such recyclable fraternization. But I also recognize I perform this OCD blue bagging more to make myself feel better about doing my bit to help the environment. Realistically, I know most residential recycling is but a drop in the ecological bucket considering municipal authorities rarely practice what they eco-legislate.
In New York City, public facilities such as Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, Madison Square Garden, et al, largely lack labeled separate bins for recycling. There are no recycling bins on the street as there are in Spain, which I just returned from.
Recycling only works if everyone does it, especially the largest municipality in the country.
But I digress.
Economics vs. altruism
Perhaps its naïve and rather obvious to say that all companies will react to two forces: economics and the law, the latter usually pressuring the former. It is the law – and compliance with the more restrictive Energy Star specifications – that makes consumer electronics, computer and appliance companies better eco-entities. Hawking a product's Energy Star rating suddenly has become a corporate marketing parlor game.
What squeezes my Charmin is that companies that likely battled against making expensive eco-friendly enhancements now hype these legislative- or market-forced ecological efforts as if they sprung from their own sudden eco-enlightenment.
Take, for instance, the Samsung Replenish, a cell phone made from 80 percent recycled materials and packed in eco-friendly packaging, priced at just $50 with the usual two-year contract.
Great and laudable, but here's my question: if a phone made from mostly recycled materials is such a worthwhile idea, and if you can make eco-friendly products at low prices, why can't ALL cell phones be made and packaged this way? I have the same question for companies that similarly make one or two eco-friendly products – if you can do one or two, why not all?
Then there is the profit motive awkwardly getting in the way of doing what's right. I don't protest the profit motive, merely the cynical friend-of-the-earth posing as a way to turn a dollar.
Take, for instance, the RainPerfect solar-powered rain barrel pump. This is a clever solution for suburban souls suffering under lawn-watering restrictions.
But you know where RainPerfect would really come in handy? Africa, Haiti, Pakistan, Bangalore, to name a few, sunny places where potable water is often located miles from villages, requires lengthy hikes to obtain, and can be transported only in quantities a person can carry.
I have searched the RainPerfect web site and can find no mention of an effort to export this technology to where it is needed for more than lawn beautification and where it could literally be a life-saver. I'm not saying they should give it away, but there's got to be a way of getting it to where it's needed.
A dim bulb
I also reported on the Philips EcoVantage, a faux incandescent light bulb that uses less power than a normal incandescent, and contains none of that nasty mercury.
But we are like companies - altruism is nice, but the twin cudgels of economics and the law are more powerful product purchase persuaders. The recent federal manufacturing restriction will drive the incandescent from our lives next year (a phase out which may be overturned by the House), necessitating more energy-efficient bulbs.
The EcoVantage bulb looks like the familiar incandescent, not like those weird Klingon-looking twisted compact flourescents.
I can imagine the product design meeting. "People like incandescent bulbs, so let's give them one that's also energy efficient! They'll just see the shape and that it's energy efficient, and we'll sell millions!"
Laudable, but upon further review, this doesn't figure to be a good deal. The bulb costs more than an incandescent, but lasts only as long.
A better deal would be the company's EnduraLED dimmable light emitting diode bulbs (LED is the same technology used in the display of your DVD player and other gadgets). Much more expensive than any other bulb, yes, but with a 25,000-hour life – that's more than three years of it always being on – an LED lamp in normal usage will likely out-live you, which means its presence in a landfill is a long ways off. And it looks like an incandescent.
Do 'green gadgets' make a difference?
I'm not saying there aren't pure motives at many companies promoting green products. And perhaps I'm too jaded, too cynical about their motives and our own economic self-interests overwhelming our eco-altruism (although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as exemplified by the innovative TerraCycle).
Like my own recycling, I can't shake the feeling that all these oxymoronic "green gadgets" (since all electronics are an affront to the environment, especially once they've been abandoned, but that's the subject for a separate screed) are designed more to help us feel better about ourselves rather than make a true difference in the ecological battle.
But I'll be happy to be proved wrong.