Pushing Green Innovation Forward: Technology and Consumer Electronics brands do more, smartly

By Nirm Shanbhag

Few industries have greater ambitions and a bigger appetite for disruption than the tech industry—and that spirit of innovation has fueled the continual greening of technology. From how raw materials are sourced to how items are recycled, it seems that, more than ever, technology companies have realized that being responsible members of society isn’t just a good marketing ploy; it’s good business. While all of the Best Global Green brands in the technology and consumer electronics space have spent a lot of time and resources ensuring that their operations are as efficient and responsible as possible, they’ve also gone further, rethinking the very products they create and also finding ways to help their customers—and even other categories—to be more environmentally responsible and aware than ever before.

Green as a driver of sales

Although adopting environmental practices helps companies save money, find new avenues of business, and avoid legal repercussions, these benefits all contribute to another important profit driver for companies: public relations. As consumers and businesses alike have become more and more acutely concerned with environmental issues, technology companies have found that highlighting their green credentials is a critical driver of their business. Cisco, for instance, has brought energy monitoring tools to market that assist large enterprises in identifying where elements of their IT infrastructure are consuming too much. Companies like Apple and Dell, which have built out trade-in programs for used equipment, help customers achieve their green objectives by making take-back programs and recycling options a key part of their offerings.

In other cases, consumer perception of a company’s “greenness” isn’t so much about tangible products, but the way an organization goes about delivering value and a service. Apple, for example, just built the largest end user–owned, onsite solar on land surrounding its North Carolina, data center. This not only reduces the company’s environmental impact, but also to ensures that a growing part of the business users rely on isn’t having a negative impact. As Apple, Dell, Cisco and other companies on this year’s Best Global Green Brands list make clear, green efforts that result in improved public relations and positive public perception can drive choice and impact a company’s bottom line for the better.

Green as a driver of innovation

Already geared toward problem-solving, it's no surprise that the tech sector leads the way in making environmental considerations a top priority in their product innovation efforts. Whether it be efforts to reduce energy use within data centers through more efficient designs, or reimagining how products are packaged and shipped, leading tech brands are turning their flagship offerings into performance and efficiency heroes.

Data centers, for example, create a lot of heat, so cooling can incur high costs and use a lot of energy. To address this issue, brands like Intel, Dell, and HP are working hard to optimize capacities while lowering energy costs and intensity. The innovative solutions companies such as Intel are developing for their data centers—such as low-power architecture in server applications—are enabling tech leaders to bring greener servers to the market.

While energy efficiency is the primary concern, tech companies are interested in making every aspect of their business more efficient, from production to sourcing materials to the sustainability and efficiency of the supply chain. Packaging is an integral part of the chain, which is why Dell is piloting a mushroom-derived product as a packaging material for its servers. The product looks and functions like Styrofoam, but it is organic, biodegradable, and compostable. The material makes for more environmentally friendly disposal, but it is also durable and strong. New packaging alternatives being pioneered by brands like Dell not only help to reduce carbon footprints—they can also contribute to substantial savings. Dell’s packaging strategy has eliminated 20 million pounds of packaging between 2008 and 2012, and also cut costs by more than $18 million. In a world that is increasingly feeling the effects of climate change and resource scarcity, necessity is indeed the mother of invention—but, as the Dell example illustrates, new ideas and approaches can pay off big.

Green as a recruitment and retention tool

Attracting and retaining talent is another area where a green reputation can pay off. For all the money spent on factories, data centers, and R&D, if you ask tech firm leaders what keeps them up at night, most would, undoubtedly, put finding and keeping talent near the top of the list. For many tech companies facing this challenge, being green is more than just window dressing—it’s critical to proving their commitment to what matters to their employees.

Take a company like Adobe, which continues to push its role in driving the creative economy while shrinking its environmental footprint. Most recently, the company added a 280,000 sq. ft. LEED Gold-certified architectural wonder to its Lehi, Utah campus, proving that inspiring employees and doing good go hand in hand. Google, whose company buses take thousands of cars off the road each day, and who has a network of bicycles distributed around its campuses to help Googlers get from meeting to meeting, continues to take on big challenges as part of its various moon shot initiatives, whether it be aggressively developing plug-in electric vehicles, or rethinking server farms. Perhaps a reflection of their California roots, these firms have, over the years, committed to managing their impact on the world. The result is that employees—both existing and prospective—find a greater sense of alignment between what they personally care about and what matters to the company they work for. Research, in fact, increasingly reveals a significant positive relationship between perceived environmental performance and employee satisfaction, higher productivity, and lower employee turnover.

Tech as the enabler of green

Finally, there’s the undeniable truth that the ‘techification’ of our entire world is helping to enable environmental efforts across a variety of industries. By incorporating traffic data into smartphone mapping apps, MIT researchers found that drivers could reduce their energy use by up to 20 percent. Companies like Nest, which reinvented the household thermostat for the digital world, have taken what were once very staid, incremental categories and shaken them up, allowing the world to do more with less.

Going forward, the technology and consumer electronics sector will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible. But unlike decades past, where creating more powerful and more capable electronics were the only priority, today it’s a story of balance between doing more and doing it smartly.