While gadget manufacturers have made strides in cutting energy use, advocates have said more needs to be done to create a "fair IT" industry. They want consumers to think more about what kinds of gadgets they buy.
Green initiatives in technology still have a long way to go
In recent years, green and sustainable IT has only begun to sneak its way into the discussion of mainstream tech companies. This month, Wired magazine featured this statement: "One million workers. 90 million iPhones. 17 suicides. Should you care where your gadgets come from?"
Before the CeBIT trade fair began in Germany on Monday, MakeITFair, an umbrella European fair trade advocacy organization, released a report noting that there had been an improvement over the past two years in Chinese working conditions, where the overwhelming majority of technical gadgets are manufactured.
"Genuine, independent and democratically elected trade unions do not exist," read a statement from Paivi Poyhonen of Finnwatch, which monitors Finnish companies in developing and emerging countries. "Although the extremely low basic wages have been raised, the offered wage levels are still far too low as the living wage in the Guangdong province."
Representatives of the campaign said they hope that fair attendees become more conscious of the implications of the entire life cycle of the IT industry.
"Especially the implications for people that live in developing countries, those that are involved in the mining for the metals for IT gadgets, those that are involved in the manufacturing of laptops and those that are involved in the recycling of computers," Cornelia Heydenreich, an advisor with Germanwatch, told Deutsche Welle.
Not the same as fair trade coffee
Previous industries, most notably coffee and chocolate, have pioneered fair trade labeling. However, no such system exists in the IT world, and while some consumers may be willing to pay a premium on tech gadgets, Heydenreich also noted that such a label would be a bit harder in this sector.
Chocolate and coffee have long had fair trade movements, not so for technology
"I think it would work, but I think it's very different than with coffee, because in coffee you just have one raw material and in IT you have at least 30 metals in one computer or something," she said.
Germanwatch and its sister organizations around Europe are calling for tech companies to reconsider their products in terms of energy use, materials used and expected usefulness. The groups said that may mean slowing down an industry that tends to refresh its high profit-margin product line every six to nine months.
Heydenreich added that consumers can also influence tech companies' decisions when it comes to sustainability.
"I think what consumers can do is use their products longer, they can upgrade their products," she said. "They can ask in the shop when they buy a new product that they want to have a fair and green product. If the demand is higher, this also can push companies, and there are some companies that have products that are greener than others, so they could choose those products."
Green mobile phone chargers, keyboards
While there are few sustainable products on display at this year's CeBIT, one new green product that is being shown is an environmentally friendly mobile phone charger made by the French company Mayamax.
Mayamax's product, with an AC adapter on one end, an extendable cord, and a plug for all kinds of mobile phones, has a plastic casing made from 40 percent of natural fibers, including jute and bamboo.
Charbel Makhlouf, a company spokesperson, said the product, which has been on sale for several weeks in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, costs 29 euros ($40), whereas the company's traditional plastic charger costs 25 euros.
Some firms are touting their green materials, but it's difficult to make tech truly green
Makhlouf also told Deutsche Welle that the new charger stops draining "standby" power, or power that is drawn after a phone is completely charged.
"Basically when you plug it in the wall, nothing happens - zero watts, in or out," he said, demonstrating it with a voltage meter. "Then you plug your mobile phone, still nothing happens. You need to press this button and it triggers a three hour charge, and then it shuts off completely, and it will go back to zero watts."
Corporations want a piece of the action
But it's not just small businesses that are trying to get a piece of the green IT pie.
For years, the Japanese computer giant Fujitsu released eco-conscious products, most recently with its "zero-watt" PC back in 2009.
This year, however, the company is making a concerted effort to use similar types of naturally sourced plastic in its peripherals. In January, the company launched its "green mouse," a normal-looking USB mouse, made of cellulose acetate and lignin, a waste product from paper manufacturing.
"But the electronics inside are halogen-free and the cables are PVC-free," said Lidija Petrovic, a company product manager in Germany, in an interview at CeBIT. "We are looking, of course, to make green as much as possible. It's not possible to make everything 100 percent green, but we're working on it."
Other companies, including Asus and Cisco, also touted their environmental credentials. The Taiwanese laptop maker showed some laptops that are partially made with bamboo, while Cisco promoted its efforts to reduce paper waste by not printing instruction manuals with its popular routers and switches. The company will also take back unwanted products to be recycled.
"People think about not just buying the product and the energy that the product is using while in operation, but people want to know about how we produce the goods, how we transport the goods, and how we recycle the goods," said Jens Demmer, a Cisco product manager. "That is becoming more and more important to consumers."
Author: Cyrus Farivar, at CeBIT in Hanover
Editor: Stuart Tiffen