True Green?

Part 1: Marketing and the Display Industry

by Jenny Donelan

Manufacturing, retail, food service – name an industry and you can be sure its members have been promoting their companies' environmentally responsible products and practices. Whether the subject is planting a tree for so many widgets sold, using organic cotton to make a new line of clothes, or using paper wrappers instead of polystyrene clamshells to enclose fast-food burgers, green is the color of our day. But this swift emergence of a "green conscience" among commercial entities has almost as swiftly created a backlash of "green skepticism" on the part of consumers and the media. Words like "natural" and "sustainable" are pretty easy to throw around, and there is often no way to quantify or qualify them.

The display industry is in step with the rest of the world on this issue and here as elsewhere it is no less easy to separate the hype from the reality. Every other day, it seems, the e-mail inboxes of Information Display receive at least one press release from a display company promoting its sustainable activities or a report from an analyst on green practices. Consider the recent Web and TV ad campaign from Apple for its new line of MacBook Pro notebooks. The battery life is longer than ever, and the display features a 60% increase in color gamut over previous generations as well as a 700:1 contrast ratio. How did Apple choose to promote the line? As "The greenest MacBook Pro ever," with the system itself displaying the requisite vibrant, green blades of grass adorned with glistening water droplets. In the past, improved battery live was touted as a convenience. Now it's also a sustainability issue. Display glass is also arsenic- and mercury-free (although Apple is not the only manufacturer to so proceed — see next month's Industry News) and described as "highly recyclable." So, is Apple guilty of hype or worthy of admiration? In fact, a bit of both.

For the display industry in general, "We are seeing two trends," says Norbert Hildebrand, analyst with Insight Media (itself holding a Green Display Expo in July 2009). "Number one is marketing hype – where existing TVs are 'painted' green. The second is that technologies really are increasing the greenness of TVs. The energy usage of large TVs is coming down. PDPs are more efficient." Are these real green initiatives? Yes. Do companies often exaggerate the truth? Of course.

Further complicating matters is that marketing hype in itself does not prove a technology less green, even if that technology or process is pre-existing . (Pretzels, low fat since forever, are now marketed as "low-fat" snacks, as if their lack of fat is a new development.) Presumably, however, it's the newer initiatives that are going to make the difference.

The rule of thumb, says Hildebrand, is that when three key criteria are met, a green initiative will be adopted: "It has to be good for the environment, good for the consumer, and good for the manufacturer," he says. "When these three things overlap, that is the initiative that is adopted first." In the United States especially, he says, "Green in itself is not a driver. No one will buy a TV that is dim and fuzzy because it's green." Bring the quality up, however, and point out the greenness and customers will come. Of course, especially when it comes to manufacturing and its processes, there are shades of green.

Next month, we will look at the specific ways that display manufacturers are changing their operations toward real sustainability, and some of the special problems this industry faces. In subsequent issues, we will examine the different ways end-user products are being designed for greater efficiency and sustainability. Last, we will check out pending legislation that is changing how the display industry does business throughout the world.