Sony Corp. is conducting a surveillance campaign into the activities of environmental organizations which are pushing for regulations that could be harmful to Sony's bottom line.
An internal Sony document, leaked last week to InterPress Service, outlines a presentation titled "NGO Strategy" made in July by Sony representatives at the European Information and Communications Technology Industry Association conference on environmental policy in Brussels. The presentation exposes some of the findings of the company's monitoring efforts, including details of relevant activities by specific environmental groups which advocate new laws holding the electronics industry legally and financially responsible for cleanup of the often toxic chemicals contained in its products. Such legislation is already being considered in Europe, and some non-governmental organizations are hoping to introduce a similar proposal in the US.
According to a report by the newsletter InsideEPA, Sony may be using the intelligence it gathers "to track and potentially cripple activists efforts on a global scale."
The leaked document includes the names of specific US activist groups pushing for regulation, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the European Environment Bureau, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), and the Northern Alliance for Sustainability. Sony characterizes the groups as "highly active" and "well-organized" with "global reach," characterized by successful efforts to expose human health hazards of some industrial flame retardants and plastics additives.
The presentation suggests the industry develop a unified counter-strategy at the meeting, including employing an industry-wide "detailed monitoring and contact network [on] NGOs" using "web investigation agencies" such as Infonic Plc. Infonic's Web site markets the agency to big business as a solution to pesky online critics: "Suddenly a company's voice is no louder than that of its leading critics'. Activists, customers, journalists, and employees are talking to each other like never before, with big business finding it increasingly difficult to stay in the conversation."
Among Sony's other suggestions were for each company to hire a public relations officer to respond exclusively to environmental critics, and to preempt future legislation by working with NGOs on localized recycling campaigns (as Sony has already done). Sony concludes the presentation exhorting other electronics firms to establish relationships with "reliable NGOs," and notes there may be "tax rebates in some Member states" for doing so.
Ted Smith, executive director of the SVTC, an advocacy group based in California's high-tech hub, said he was startled to discover that the Japanese-based company was discussing his group's activities.
"It seems that industry has spent an inordinate amount of time fighting the tide instead of doing what they need to do to clean up the industry," he said.
Mark Small, vice president of environment and health and safety issues with Sony in the United States, acknowledged that Sony was tracking the activities of environmental groups.
"We are obviously concerned about our image, and we want to make sure that if Greenpeace is pushing something we want to be on top of it," said Small, who is based in San Diego, Calif.
Small admitted that the presentation was not put together in the "most tasteful" way but explains that it was not meant for public release.
The electronics industry, including Sony, has been fighting efforts by environmentalists and the European Union to pass laws which would make electronics manufacturers responsible for the environmental and health damage the manufacture, use, and disposal of their products could cause.
In Europe, these efforts have culminated in what is known as the European Commission Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (or WEEE). The proposed law would force producers of electronic products and electrical equipment to take financial responsibility for managing their products throughout their lifecycle, including when the product is no longer useful and thrown away.
"The public should not have to pay extra taxes for waste-management costs of hazardous materials that producers choose to use in electrical and electronic equipment," said the SVTC's Smith.
The proposal would also require that mercury, lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals commonly used in electronics be phased out by 2008.
Environmentalists in Europe began pushing the legislation as it became an increasing burden for local governments to deal with the amount of electronic waste generated by the booming expansion of the computer industry.
In general, computer equipment is a complicated assembly of more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic when broken down, producing toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics, and plastic additives.
Apart from the well-known substances like mercury and lead, the health impacts of many of these chemicals and the mixtures and material combinations in the products often are not known, warn environmental groups.
The manufacture of semiconductors, printed circuit boards, disk drives, and monitors involve particularly hazardous chemicals, and workers involved in chip manufacturing are now beginning to come forward reporting cancer clusters, according to the SVTC.
The organization notes that by 2004, there will be an estimated 315 million obsolete computers in the United States. Since fewer than 10 percent of the high-tech machines are now recycled, most of them will be destined for landfills or incinerators, says Smith.
Sony's Small says such regulations on the high-tech industry are unnecessary and argues companies are already undertaking voluntary efforts to better design products so they are more recyclable.
He says Sony is working with the state of Minnesota and some cities to develop recycling and "take-back" programs for used electronic equipment, including stereos and television sets.
"If we get this working in the United States, we will show Europe and Japan that this is a working model that makes economic sense and will be more effective than regulation," Small said.
But activists say such voluntary efforts do not address the phase-out of toxic chemicals or guaranteee that companies will take responsibility for their existing products.
"The rest seems to be window dressing," said the SVTC's Smith.
The electronics industry and the US Trade Representative have been actively campaigning against Europe's effort to adopt the WEEE directive.
Since the European legislation surfaced several years ago, the American Electronic Association (AEA) -- with 3,000 member companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, and Intel -- and the US Trade Representative launched a major offensive against it. They charge the legislation violates the World Trade Organization (WTO) because it imposes requirements on foreign manufacturers.
Environmentalists and three US lawmakers have written to Vice President Al Gore, urging the presidential hopeful to intervene and put an immediate stop to the USTR's lobbying.
"We must level environmental standards up, not down," says a letter signed by more than 100 pressure groups. "Trade associations must not be allowed to dictate environmental health policy."