O2's "Eco Ratings" for cell phones: green or greenwash?

Today, British mobile network company O2 released its Eco Rating system, devised in conjunction with sustainable development organization Forum for the Future. The rating system is a laudable undertaking: cell phones use energy, can contain toxic materials, and provide yet another e-waste challenge… so having a “simple and transparent” system for sustainability information on phones can help consumers make smarter choices here.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how the O2 system really provides useful information in a transparent manner. Consider these points:

  • As far as I can see, there’s no single place a consumer can go to see a complete list of the 65 phones ranked… and I really tried to find one. So far, I’ve only come across a press release that lists the top five, as well as the manufacturers that participated. Apple and RIM (the maker of the Blackberry) weren’t among them (though RIM will participate next year). A consumer shopping for a phone will only find the score for that specific handset on its page.

  • The scores consumers see are just that: scores. No breakdown of the elements that contributed to the score (though Forum for the Future have published a document detailing the scoring system, and claims more details will become available later in the year).

  • Functionality counts for 25% of the score. BusinessGreen.com first picked up on this, and asked Forum for the Future’s James Taplin why this characteristic played a role at all in the rankings. According to writer James Murray, Taplin “…admitted that the criteria had been introduced because it did not want smart phones to ‘all come out at the bottom’ of the ratings.”

  • The manufacturers themselves provided the data for the rankings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the information came from sustainability reports with reputable third-party verification… but we just don’t know that. The document explaining ranking criteria notes that “Forum for the Future believes the risk of being ‘found out’ misreporting aspects of company or product sustainability will ensure accuracy.”

The concept here is overdue; the thoroughness of the reporting just seems really shaky at this point…   The best thing I can say is that the brands ranked highly tend to track well with Greenpeace’s Guide to Green Electronics (which provides substantive information on how companies achieve the rankings they receive).

Am I being too tough? Share your thoughts… especially if you’re an O2 customer.


Image credit: Two Ladies & Two Cats at Flickr under a Creative Commons license