New PC from HP shows why green thinking is good for business as Amy Fetzer discovers
HP’s slick new TouchSmart PC doesn’t look green with its sleek touch screen technology designed to tempt style-conscious consumers looking for cutting-edge gadgets. Yet under its shiny black casing, the TouchSmart has impressively green credentials. Its power management technology can reduce PC energy use by up to 45%; it arrives in 100% recyclable packaging with more paper and less plastic foam for easier recycling; and the machine itself uses 55% less metal and 37% less plastic than standard PCs and monitors*. It is also Energy Star and EPEAT™ registered at silver level.
The success of the TouchSmart in marrying style with substance demonstrates the important role that corporate psychology plays in bringing CSER (Corporate, Social and Environmental Responsibility) principles into projects to ensure they become an integral part of the process.
By adopting an attitude which aimed for the ideal, viewed obstacles as challenges, and which kept environment considerations at the heart of the design process, the team behind the TouchSmart were able to think outside of the box to create a product that broke new ground both in terms of cutting edge functionality and environmental performance.
This combination of style, market-leading functionality and environmental performance is an excellent example of the symbiosis which often exists between the environment, design, functionality as the team found time and time again that designing for the environment had numerous paybacks. For example, by looking at ways to reduce energy use, the team looked to minimise waste heat. This in turn reduced noise and improved reliability as overheating is a common cause of computer malfunction.
Smashing the status quo
Companies, like people, become accustomed to established systems that aren’t always the most efficient or effective. The way to drive innovation and improve efficiencies is to forget the status quo and to question everything.
‘We said, forget any constraints, let’s look at this on an ideal basis – what would we do if we could do anything?’ explains Ken Bosley, the HP Brand manager on the TouchSmart project.
‘We asked: “What’s the best way, what’s the obstacle, why aren’t we doing it?” Usually the answer to “Why aren’t we doing this?” was “We’re not sure!” so we decided to find out.’
Bosley and his team found it was a question of addressing the philosophy behind the decisions. New ideas often meet with objections and obstacles, but instead of writing them off, the trick is to ask what can be done to eliminate the new problem. ‘The key is not to say we can’t do X because of Y,’ enthuses Bosley, ‘but to say, if the impediment to X is Y, what can we do to eliminate Y? We might need to think about that one for a while, but usually we can find a solution in the end!’
‘By taking the attitude that we’d keep moving forward until we can find a problem that we can actually solve, we were able to produce something that was a lot less material, and that used a lot less power and a lot less packaging. And as always, each benefit just fed back into each other!’
For example, the desire for slender, sexy product not only increases consumer appeal, but the resulting reductions in material use, packaging materials, and increased transport efficiencies are good for the environment and the bottom line as fewer materials mean lower costs while ultimately creating a smaller, more flexible and more appealing product for the consumer.
‘The gains made on the TouchSmart, both in terms of technology and packaging, are now being fed back into the mainstream HP production line. For example, we’re now trying to incorporate more cardboard usage in to the packaging of our mainstream products and looking at ways we can utilise energy efficiencies.’
Design for the real world
Many products are designed for ideal environments that don’t actually reflect real world practice. Yet designing products for real life consumer behaviour can have massive benefits. For example, the TouchSmart made massive energy savings by focussing on the sleep mode. Research had demonstrated that consumers leave their IT idle for long periods yet don’t utilise the power-saving sleep mode as they find it cumbersome. Recognising this, the TouchSmart default was set to sleep after 15 minutes of being idle, while considerable effort was put into making it wake up in just three seconds. This rapid resume is essential. Otherwise, the customer will just change the default settings and stop the PC from going to sleep at all.
In addition, the design team were driven by the knowledge that although many materials, like the EPS foam often used in IT packaging, are recyclable, the lack of local recycling markets can mean it winds up in landfill. In addition, customers prefer the ease that comes with recycling just one material. This led the team to cardboard because it has the highest recycling value.
Creating robust cardboard packaging was a massive challenge, and inevitably created extra work, but the design team were soon motivated by the challenge of creating packaging that not only could be 100% recycled but that would be recycled.
‘We asked questions like, “Why do we have an accessory box and cushions? Why can’t the cushions be the accessory boxes? Why do we have two of these?”’ explains Bosley. ‘When we started to question why we weren’t using more cardboard already, we discovered it was because we didn’t know if it would pass all of our drop tests. So we did all the drop tests. And it failed first time, but so did the foam first time, so we didn’t let that put us off. So we went back to drawing board and tried and tried again until we succeeded.’
The hard work paid off with the creation of 98% cardboard packaging for the TouchSmart, and this single material cardboard design is now being applied to the mainstream PC box.
However, a real world approach also led some frustration. Knowing that the box is often the only means of communicating with the consumers, the design team weren’t prepared to compromise on the signature HP ‘black box’ design. ‘It was very frustrating,’ says Bosley, ‘because the most environmentally friendly scenario is if there was no printing on the cardboard box. If you print anything at all, it’s the same as if you print the whole thing. There is no way we would sell products with a blank box so that wasn’t feasible. We looked into doing a printed sleeve on a plain brown box, but after doing further research, it seemed that overall, it was better to print on the box itself.
Weighing up the options
There were some areas where the design team had to reluctantly accept defeat. One of these was screen, which would use mercury-free LEDs rather than fluorescent backlights in an ideal world. Unfortunately, this was too costly to implement at the moment, but with LEDs becoming more and more affordable, it’s likely to be a temporary setback.
The vagaries of the international shipment process also meant that despite all the efforts to avoid using foam packaging, it was necessary in countries which use single box shipments, rather than multiple pallets. This was because the cardboard packaging was not shock absorbent enough to protect the product in transit in single shipments. However the team is viewing this as a short-term set back and they’ve pledged to keep working on developing a higher grade cardboard packaging.
Another problem the team grappled with was more fundamental. ‘You can’t get away from the fact that an energy efficient computer is still going to be a piece of e-waste eventually,’ says Bosley. ‘However, we did everything we could to make sure the TouchSmart was designed to make it easily disassembled for recycling so the plastic parts can be separated from the metal. We’ve tried to incorporate these factors into the design as much as possible.
‘I wish we could have figured out a way to make the plastic components from recycled plastic. It’s the same with the cardboard packaging. The complexities of the supply chain mean we can’t guarantee a recycled supply. But it’s another thing we’ll keep working on. Our attitude is: just because you can’t solve it right up front, it doesn’t mean you should stop working on it. Keep it on the list for the next project because the world changes.’
Design for the Environment as an everyday part of the process
Despite their incredible efforts, the design team are pragmatists. They realise that at present, the environmental aspects of an IT product are not part of the primary purchasing criteria. However, they are a key part of the HP brand value.
‘We feel that if customers trust us as an environmentally responsible brand; that will help influence their purchasing decisions. People associate a company with social and environmental responsibility, not a product. It’s not just about the product itself, it’s also what are we doing at every level, from looking at the social responsibility of our supply chain to the environmental efficiencies of our offices.’ This attitude demonstrates that in successful CSER, designing for the environment is just an everyday part the process.
Amy Fetzer is a freelance journalist and environmental writer specialising in CSR and sustainability issues. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also is a member of “The Sustainability Writers Network” (TSWN). For more information please visit the TSWN discussion thread on SustainabilityForum.com.
* Comparisons based on a HP Pavillion a6000 PC and HP w2207 monitor bundle