- [This Alistair Wallis-penned interview ran late last week on Gamasutra, and is notable because I think it's one of the first times someone has followed up with the organization and quizzed them in more details on their skewering of game hardware companies for not being sufficiently 'green'.]

International activist organization Greenpeace recently released an updated version of its report ranking the three current games consoles in terms of their environmental impact.

Amongst the considerations taken into account are the recyclability of the consoles, the use of hazardous materials in their manufacture, and the use of energy while in idle mode.

In most respects, says campaign coordinator Zeina Al-Hajj, the console industry has a lot of work to do. While Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo comply with laws regarding hazardous materials, Greenpeace is challenging the companies to move beyond what is currently required by law to create a greener console.

The organization is also asking for greater transparency in regards to the manufacture and disposal of products, as well as the company’s individual environmental policies. Al-Hajj notes that while Sony and Microsoft have been forthcoming in opening a dialogue to aid this, Nintendo has so far refused to comment – despite already having the greenest console on the market.

We spoke to Al-Hajj, and asked about the report, and where she hopes the industry will go in the coming years.

I just wanted to begin by asking how you got involved with the whole campaign in the first place.

We’ve been running a campaign in Greenpeace for greening the electronic industry since 2004. We’re aiming to challenge the electronic industry as a whole, and mainly the big names in the industry – the big brands putting product on the market – on their environmental policies. Although this is one of the most fascinating and unique industries that has changed our way of life, the industry hasn’t really looked at their environmental responsibilities when it comes to operating.

That can be evidenced by the amount of waste being generated, and unfortunately because of the content, this waste is hazardous waste. There is a lot of data, mainly released last year, about the climate impact of the industry – its CO2 emission, calculated to roughly 2% of global total. That puts the industry on a similar standing as the aviation industry, and 2% may well be a mild estimation. It’s possible the actual figure is higher.

From that challenge, we have a guide that assesses the environmental policies of the big brands. We started focusing on PCs and mobile phones, because they are the most widely used products, and the lifespan is short, so they’re generating huge amounts of environmental waste every year.

Then we added to that report TVs and games consoles. TV because it’s an old product we’re seeing everywhere as waste, and games consoles particularly because it’s one of the products being put on the market with absolutely no environmental recognition whatsoever, and that’s quoting the industry itself. When you speak to the leaders in that market – Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft – environment is not a concern in the production of those products.

Primarily, they’re being produced with usability in mind, and the amount of applications that can be used with it.

We came across it when we started learning more about the industry. Sony is a key example, because they were on our ranking system from the beginning. All the commitments we got from Sony in regards to improving their range of product stopped when it came to the game consoles. They looked at their mobile devices, they looked at their laptops, but when it came to game consoles, they never improved on it or made any commitments to improve it.

Because it is one of the booming fields within the electronic industry now, in terms of consumption, money being put into it, and the amount of product being sold globally – as well as the growth of those sales – it raises a lot of concern for us, because it’s going to end up being waste. And when they do, without companies looking at environmental impact, it’s going to be hazardous waste. That’s what we’re challenging the industry to look at.

It’s something that you’ve only really started looking at recently then?

Yes, just last year when we came across it, and that’s when we launched the website: The Clash of the Consoles, which challenges the three leaders in that field to take on board environmental policies, and to put on the market a greener game console. Because what’s on the market now is far away from that.

What were your findings, on the whole?

First, as a component of it, you have to realise that all electronic appliances are compliant with a regulation from Europe called the ROHS – Restriction of Hazardous Substances. This directive was passed in the EU, and says that any product sold in that market needs to be free of lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and two types of polybrominated flame retardant.

All the electronic industry players must comply with that, otherwise they can’t sell their product in the EU market. And because it’s a global industry, the impact of that directive is on a global level. All products are free of lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and two types of polybrominated flame retardant.

The industry has already started to improve, but that’s not enough. The amount of chemicals used by the industry, and the toxicity of the chemicals, is very high. We’re challenging the industry to eliminate additional chemicals, like all types of polybrominated flame retardant and PVC. They’re used by the industry, and when those products become waste, it’s hazardous waste.

None of the game console manufacturers have made any commitment to this, or put on the market a green device free of those additional chemicals. They’re free of lead, cadmium and chromium – they have to be, because that’s the law. To give you a comparison: Sony has a VAIO laptop that’s free of PVC in most of its components, as well as polybrominated flame retardant, and they’ve eliminated lead in the screens now. That’s not the case with their games consoles.

That’s the challenge for us: to make sure the industry starts implementing the changes they’ve made with other electronic products.

The energy consumption is another element that we’re now adding to our assessment of the industry, and we started doing that with the games consoles from the beginning. There is a huge difference between the three main consoles.

It does seem like a very noticeable difference.

Exactly. There are two points to flag when it comes to energy; firstly, there is no real global standard that will give you a monitoring for how much energy a product uses. There’s the recognised energy star, which PCs and laptops adopt, and that’s a US based standard, though it is becoming a global standard. But that doesn’t exist for game consoles. So far, they’re using the same standard as desktops when they try to assess them, but there’s no existing standard for game consoles.

With the three main products now sold on the market, the Wii from Nintendo does stand out. Of course, from an application point of view, there’s a huge difference between the Wii and the PlayStation. We’re fully aware of that. But even on idle mode, which is basically just switching on the console, the difference is huge – it’s 15 watts for the Wii, while it’s 128 watts for the PlayStation 3. That’s almost 1000% more. It’s scary to see those differences.

And yes, when you have millions of units of these products being sold globally, you’re contributing to climate change, and environmental problems, and there’s a need to act. For us, we see the problems that exist in that, but if Nintendo can manage to cut down the idle mode energy usage to 15 watts, why can’t Sony and Microsoft?

That was one of the things I wanted to ask – why that difference does exist. Are there things Nintendo is doing with the Wii that seems focused on energy consumption, even in some small form?

Well, that’s the dilemma that we’re having with Nintendo now. We’re not getting any reply from them whatsoever, since we started trying to communicate with them, and that was before we launched the game console website. It’s interesting for us in this campaign as Greenpeace, because we’ve been in touch with all of these companies, and we have constant communication via face to face meetings, conference calls, email exchange – they’ve all been aware of our campaign, our demands.

We discussed the challenges with them, and why certain companies are not acting on that. Nintendo stand out as the only company who has refused to communicate back, so far.

Speaking as someone who writes about games for a living, not getting a response from Nintendo is actually nothing new. [Laughs] They’re not the most communicative of companies. It’s not just you.

Oh, really? Well, we don’t even know how they manage to cut down their energy consumption to that level. We’ve tested those three devices in our lab and we have seen them, worked with them – we played them, to understand. [Laughs] We’re not big gamers here, but we tried to understand why people would pay to have them in their homes.

The Wii stands out in terms of size, and if I compare them visually, the Wii uses more standardised material – it’s all done using the same material which makes it easier to recycle.

What kinds of things are you talking about, in terms of recyclability? Is it something we’ve seen in previous console generations, that they have been recycled in some way?

No, that’s what we’re discovering now. There has been no responsibility from the console industry – particularly Nintendo and Sony, since they’re older than Microsoft in the business. There’s no responsibility whatsoever, in terms of environmental policy.

Sony started, as of last year, a program in Japan – because the rules there are very strict in terms of recycling. And because of the pressure of our campaign, they went in to a whole new level of that in the US for all products, including the game consoles, which marks the first time we’ve seen that. But there’s no data in regards to how much is being recycled and what is being recycled. That’s the whole dilemma with the industry.

In the EU, in addition to the ROHS directive, there’s a specific directive that refers to accounting for waste from electronic equipment that came into force in 2005. til now, 70% of the electronic waste collected within the EU is unaccounted for. That’s EU, which has very high environmental regulations, and where a lot of things are being implemented, and it’s one of the few places that does have that law regarding waste. We really don’t know what happens.

Most of the programs are being put into place now, because the pressure has been high enough in the past few years that people are starting to act. We don’t know what drove Nintendo to start doing the things they’ve done with the Wii. There are clear marketing reasons, in terms of changing their audience for a more family focused audience, but we don’t know whether the choices they made to cut down on energy consumption and make it more recyclable are driven from that reason.

When you look at their environmental website, it’s one page, and there’s really nothing there. That’s part of the challenge for the industry – to start being transparent. It’s so that not only Greenpeace can say, ‘Oh, you didn’t say this here’, but you guys – the media – and the consumers can say, ‘I want to go to their website and figure this out; I have an old Nintendo I don’t want use any more, and I’d like to have it recycled. What do I do with it?’

None of this data is available. What is available right now, is that Nintendo is committed to the environment, so they recycle in their offices. Okay. Good work guys, but that’s not the issue. The issue is the responsibility to their product.

Sony and Microsoft have started replying between the last ranking guide in December last year and now. They started recognising that there is a problem, and have said that they will start acting on it. So there’s movement there.

But you’ve had no assurances in regards to their actions in the past?

Not yet, no. It takes time to change a policy. We’ve started seeing change in the PC and mobile industry after a year – it does take time to start being transparent, and start making the data available.

We recently did another study launched at the beginning of the month about the green products already available on the market. So we did a survey asking the industry to nominate their greenest products. The game console industry didn’t even respond. They don’t even have a product to nominate, whereas the PC and mobile and desktop did.

There was criteria for them to respond to – questions that would allow us to determine whether the product was really green or not. We don’t have a green product yet, but the Sony VAIO stand out, and the mobiles from Sony Ericsson are the same.

One of the criteria we tried to work with was, in terms of energy, in addition to knowing how much energy the product consumes when using it, is there data regarding the consumption during its production? No company was able to give us this data. Not because they weren’t willing to share the data, because some of the data we get from companies is confidential, and we keep that confidential because it relates to trademarks or whatever. It’s that they don’t even have this data.

They don’t have an idea, say for the mobile I’m holding right now, in regards to the energy put into it for it to be produced. How can they cut down on that if they don’t know? How can you solve the problem if you don’t even know about it?

Is that just a reflection of current manufacturing processes within the industry?

Partially, yes, because it’s really a global industry, where your laptop is assembled in one country after one component is built in one country and another comes from somewhere else. It’s really global. It’s scary, actually, that the industry doesn’t understand its responsibility.

Take Dell for example – they don’t touch a laptop as a company. They outsource that to second, third and fourth tier suppliers, then at the end put a Dell stamp on it. So how can they know what happens along that chain? That’s what the industry needs to start looking at, because if they don’t know what they’re putting in their products and what’s happening in regards to energy, how can we start making this industry green?

How green can the console industry get?

Energy consumption can definitely be reduced, and Nintendo is a key example – from a product end, you can make that happen. For its whole lifecycle, none of them have that data, so they need to work that out before they can focus on cutting energy consumption down throughout its production as well.

In terms of the chemical use in the console, it’s definitely possible, because we’ve seen it in the mobile and PC industries. Chemical use can be eliminated, and the industry has eliminated lead, cadmium and chromium following the ROHS directive.

It’s very possible for the industry to produce a greener product and put it on the market.

The industry is unique in the sense that the products are durable. It’s not like the mobile and laptop industry where laptops have a very short lifespan. They lifecycle for consoles is normally up to five years. They don’t change the design for four or five years, and that’s a very positive aspect from an environmental point of view. The longer the product life, the less resources you’re extinguishing and the less waste you’re generating.

So, in terms of Sony’s 10 year plan for the PS3, that’s obviously a very positive thing.

Yeah, exactly. There are elements that they’re taking on board, and that’s why producing a greener game console is definitely possible from an energy and chemical point of view. The durability is already there.

What is needed is for the industry to challenge itself in terms of knowing the whole lifecycle of its products and putting that effort into the next generation of consoles.

Is that something you’re hearing from Sony and Microsoft, at least? That they’re committed to that, or considering the possibilities of that?

With Sony, we have a commitment to improving the chemical usage of their products right throughout the range. They’re going to take responsibility right throughout that range. They’re moving faster in mobile and laptops and even PSP, or at least that’s what we’re reading in their commitment and on their website.

That’s why the challenge is, if Sony will move, because they have done so in a faster and stronger way than the other companies previously, then that can be a good example. The latest version of the PlayStation – the 40GB one - improved on the energy usage of the previous iteration, reducing it to 128 watts. They are starting to act. The original PS3 used 199 watts.

Have we seen a difference with the Xbox 360 over its lifecycle?

They’re all improving, yes. They have the Elite one, which uses less energy than the original Xbox 360 – that one, on idle, used 170 watts, and they reduced it to 97 watts now.

It’s very obvious that they’re all acting on the energy consumption. On the chemical use, we haven’t seen a shift. We’ve seen promises, but no shift in reality. We’re hoping that with the designs of the new devices that they’re now working, those elements will feature.

That’s exactly why we launched this campaign at this time, because we know that they must all be designing right now and working on their new products. We hope that will influence them into looking at environment when doing that.

So, you’re looking to have more of a dialogue, as well as the results?

Well, the dialogue is happening, with the exception on Nintendo. So that’s not the aim – the aim is to get a game console with environmental features on the market, in terms of it being as energy efficient as possible, and being green in terms of its chemical usage.

Is there a good chance of that happening?

We believe so, because the pressure is mounting on the industry, and the environment is becoming a factor. When we released our study into the greenest products on the market there was a big IT fair in Europe, CeBIT, and the main theme there was ‘Green IT’. It’s being discussed, and after three years of campaigning with us talking about green IT and it not being an issue on anyone’s agenda, it’s now being featured on consumer shows.

That’s fantastic for us to see, and we know now that the industry has started to react on their responsibility. When the data was announced regarding the industry being responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions, which was a study done by Gardener, a big research institute, and they basically said, ‘Bad news; you guys are similar to the aviation industry. But the good news is you have a lot of ways to act and give a better performance’.

The industry is starting to act, because environmental issues are key right now. No one can ignore climate change, and no one can ignore their responsibilities. Nobody wants to see these mountains of electronic waste being scrapped in China and India by kids. No company wants to have its branded game consoles scrapped that way. Some are acting slower, so the challenge is how fast we can get them to act.

It’s not a matter of if they will do it, it’s a matter of when they will do it.