Sony Ericsson: pushing through the "greenwash"

OvumLast week Sony Ericsson delivered an update on the progress of its sustainability program, which aims to reduce the company’s environmental impact. We met with Sony Ericsson’s Head of Corporate Sustainability, Mats Pellbäck Scharp, to discuss the handset vendor’s strategy and progress in implementing its corporate sustainability policy and its Greenheart handset range. Sony Ericsson has made a good start, but the real test will come as the Greenheart initiative is expanded across its portfolio.
Sony Ericsson’s ongoing sustainability roadmap is focused on ensuring basic product compliance, with guidelines around handset recycling; reduction in materials and toxic substances; and convincing suppliers of the benefits of Sony Ericsson’s corporate social responsibility approach. For a handset vendor, the greatest environmental impact comes from its products, making this the best place to address the problem. Greenheart-branded handsets are those that comply with Sony Ericsson’s own environmental policies.
Sony Ericsson claims that 5–10% of its 2010 handset production will be Greenheart handsets, but the big push will come in 2011 when a planned 80% of the company’s products will be Greenheart-compliant. The aim is to bring more suppliers into the program and drive its sustainability goals further into the company’s daily operations.
Sony Ericsson estimates that a Greenheart handset has a lifecycle carbon footprint that is roughly 15% lower than a comparable standard model, with other benefits flowing from reduced plastic and paper consumption, and use of less toxic materials. Some benefits are minimal in terms of carbon footprint, but have strong local benefits in and around factories (such as switching to water-based paints).
It’s natural to be cynical about corporate claims of greenness. “Greenwashing” is well known, and has been used and abused by everyone from mining companies to the automobile industry in a bid to attract the “green dollar”.
This green dollar is a significant marketing advantage: Sony Ericsson quoted market research that shows that 10–30% of people are willing to pay extra for greener products, while 85–90% will pick the greener alternative if two products are otherwise equal (in price, performance, and quality).
However, marketing consumer electronics as “green” is troublesome: arguably the best thing most handset vendors could do for the environment would be to stop selling so many phones – not the most popular or profitable strategy. So manufacturers’ claims of environmental responsibility should be taken along with the understanding that they are underpinned by self-interest as well as good intentions.
From Sony Ericsson’s point of view, Greenheart represents a strong differentiator among customers wanting to promote their own greenness. Many enterprise buyers have their own sustainability and social responsibility targets: Sony Ericsson claims its 2009 Naite model has had good success with enterprise customers and its 2010 Aspen model (a Windows Phone 6.5 smartphone) will also play into the enterprise market. Network operators hoping to shore up their own green credentials are also more eager to include Greenheart models in their range than they might otherwise be.
This differentiator will diminish as Sony Ericsson brings more of its portfolio into the Greenheart initiative and as other handset vendors assert their own sustainability credentials.
A major stumbling block in making consumer electronics products greener is bringing suppliers on board. Handset manufacturers face a complex supplier network, typically operating in developing countries with less stringent regulations and low margins on individual components.
Making a real impact involves convincing not just suppliers but suppliers’ suppliers to adhere to compliance requirements, and this process takes time and cross-industry cooperation to be successful.
Sony Ericsson’s view is that compliance objectives are best achieved not through a prescriptive standards-based approach (Pellbäck Scharp commented that a list of checkboxes is too easy for suppliers to dodge), but through a process of building mutual trust and demonstrating the advantages of complying with environmental requirements to suppliers. This carrot is backed up with a stick: some suppliers have been sacked over non-compliance. Nevertheless there is a need for cross-industry standards and assessments to prevent manufacturers and suppliers making unsupported green claims.
Sony Ericsson is evidently confident that it can bring about change in the industry through cooperation, but it is also lobbying the EU parliament for stronger regulation of the electronics industry as a whole. We hope that efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the industry gain traction with Sony Ericsson’s competitors and customers, and the imperatives of maintaining profitability do not interfere too significantly with sustainability goals.