Sustainability check on computers: Hewlett-Packard leads the field

Source: Oekom, 31 July 2001

The merger of Hewlett-Packard and Compaq is bearing fruit: the young company came out on top in a "Corporate Responsibility Rating, conducted by Munich-based oekom research AG, of the eight leading computer manufacturers on the international stage. The rating uses 200 criteria to evaluate the environmental and social performance of companies on a scale from A+ to D-. In this latest study, Hewlett-Packard (US), with a score of B-, came out just ahead of Apple (US), who also scored B-. Third place went to the Japanese company NEC with a C+ rating.
On the environmental side, the manufacturers are successfully working on more energy-efficient designs for their equipment. So new computers generally come with an energy label attached. In terms of the materials they use, the companies have not yet managed to chalk up any plus points: "Heavy metals, a wide variety of plastics and brominated flame retardants are still used in computers. This produces complications in disposing of worn-out equipment", says Evelyn Bohle, analyst at oekom research. The lack of commitment shown by companies is surprising as current environmental laws stipulate that used equipment will in future have to be taken back and disposed of by the manufacturers. Many companies are already marketing their equipment with take-back guarantees, thereby jumping ahead of the laws, but by using undesirable materials they are burdening themselves with the problem of disposing of them in a way that is environmentally sound.

Standards of social responsibility among computer manufacturers remain low. While many employment contracts offer remuneration that is above agreed wage scales, they provide scarcely any protection against dismissal or social compensation plans in the event of redundancies. Given the current unstable situation in the sector, this is a major insecurity factor for employees. It is also hard to find evidence of social standards being applied extensively to suppliers. Since many companies are increasingly outsourcing production and obtaining components from firms in low-wage countries, this is a major shortcoming. On the positive side, it should be noted that six corporations are now tackling the so-called digital divide between richer and poorer strata in society and, in a few cases, also between industrialised and developing countries. An example of the commitment shown in this area is the equipping of schools with computers free of charge. However, there is as yet no sign of any programmes on a worldwide scale.

The sectoral average score of C in the social part of the rating leaves a lot of room for improvement. The B- obtained in the environmental part of the rating is evidence of the sectors marked awareness of environmental issues. These scores combined give a C+ in the overall "Corporate Responsibility Rating", which means that the industry is performing well in comparison with other sectors.

8 companies were analysed in the present Corporate Responsibility Rating:

Apple (US), Dell (US), Fujitsu (JP), Hewlett Packard (US), IBM (US), NEC (JP) and Sun Microsystems (US). One company did not provide any information: Gateway (US).