How Green is Sun?

Jonathan Schwartz has certainly had some success since taking the helm of computer maker Sun Microsystems. He has pulled the ailing vendor out of its nosedive, and restored an element of daring to the company. This has partly been achieved through embracing the concepts of social corporate responsibility and environmental friendliness. But can a computer maker ever really be Green?

To date the industry has a terrible record on the environment. Computer manufacturing has frequently used pollutants in its components, and the process of building machines is incredibly wasteful. To make a car, typically the weight of the raw materials used will be double the weight of the end product; for a PC, the raw materials weigh 28 times more than the machine.

But despite past environmental indiscretions, Sun’s executives are determined to demonstrate their Green credentials. The company has become an enthusiastic proponent of – the mandatory – European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. “There are a lot of our competitors who see this as a cost and are lobbying against this kind of regulation,” but Sun welcomes it, says Richard Barrington, head of corporate affairs and public policy at Sun UK.

Although there are no exact figures available, it is estimated that there are approximately one billion PCs currently in use worldwide. With an average lifespan of three to five years, that means millions of PCs will be disposed of every year.

Not only is Sun now collecting redundant machines, it is reusing and recycling the material – less than 5% enters land fill. Sun’s ability to reuse material has enabled the company’s programme to become self-financing.

Sun has also adopted environmental concerns internally, promoting flexible working practices to reduce the impact of commuting. There is still a debate as to whether home working is more energy efficient than office working, admits Barrington, but there are side benefits, such as reducing rental and heating costs that are attractive to most managers. “If you just say go and work from home you won’t notice these benefits, whereas if you actually say we’re going to restructure the way we work and the office space, you will notice the difference. Only 10% of Sun’s employees in the UK have a [dedicated] desk.”

Sun’s motives are not entirely altruistic. Regulation has played it part. But so too have Sun’s customers, says Barrington. “A number of our customers were becoming very particular about their validation of our environmental and green credentials as a part of our doing business with them.”

To help customers tackle the problem of the power-ravenous data centres, Sun has developed a range of power-efficient processors that can cut electricity consumption while improving throughput.

And these efforts have helped turn Sun around. Its most recent quarter showed revenues up 29% year-on-year, to $3.83 billion, although it is still loss-making. As Barrington notes: “We’ve had the understanding for a long while that where there’s muck, there’s brass.”

Sun still has some way to go before reclaiming its position as an industry powerhouse, but under Schwartz it intends to be an eco-friendly one.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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