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Can computers help save the earth, or are we being greenwashed?

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Esme` Deprez is working on her new MacBook at Nussbaum & Wu Bakery in New York. Although she waited four months before buying her new laptop, as she wanted the latest available model, she said its green features weren't a decisive factor in her decison. (Photo by Daniele Pinto/CNS)

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Esme` Deprez is working on her new MacBook at Nussbaum & Wu Bakery in New York. Although she waited four months before buying her new laptop, as she wanted the latest available model, she said its green features weren't a decisive factor in her decison. (Photo by Daniele Pinto/CNS)

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Esme` Deprez is working on her new MacBook at Nussbaum & Wu Bakery in New York. Although she waited four months before buying her new laptop, as she wanted the latest available model, she said its green features weren't a decisive factor in her decison. (Photo by Daniele Pinto/CNS)

As he walked through the glass-and-steel-cube entrance of the Apple Store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, Anthony Browne knew what he was looking for. His old laptop had crashed two days earlier and the 20-something fashion designer had already eyed an intriguing MacBook Pro on the Web. Yet despite Apple’s aggressive advertising of the model’s “green” features, Browne says that they were not a factor in his decision.

“I watched the video online,” Browne said, talking about an ad in which a lime-colored earth rises behind a spinning silver laptop referred to as the world’s greenest family of notebooks. “It’s reassuring, but I was going to get one anyway. It’s mostly a good marketing tool.”

Since the green-technology boom began in 2006, more and more high-tech manufacturers have focused marketing campaigns on their products’ environmentally friendly features. These efforts, which initially targeted business customers and companies worried about energy efficiency, recently expanded to everyday consumers. But, overwhelmed by too much contradictory information, Americans seem wary of environmental benefits advertised by big corporations and are worried about being “greenwashed.”

“This is an issue on the radar screen for lots of consumers,” says Paul Schwarz, vice president of Hansa GCR, a market research group based in Portland, Ore. “The real challenge is getting consumers to pay more up front in exchange for some longer-term benefits.”

Various manufacturers, he says, are looking for ways to differentiate themselves and move the conversation beyond price and performance, which have been the traditional benchmarks for buying tech products.

In its 2008 GreenTech Pulse report, Schwarz’s organization shows that only 34 percent of Americans who expected to buy a computer last year strongly considered green issues. This may be a class thing, though. Overall, 63 percent of affluent consumers indicated that the environment is an important consideration when purchasing such equipment.

That’s absolutely right, says Parker Brugge, the vice president of environmental affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association, an umbrella organization representing 2,200 consumer technology companies. He says he saw a lot of interest at the second Greener Gadgets conference, which he organized in New York City last February. But ultimately much comes down to money.

“Consumers are interested in buying products that use less energy and save money at home,” he says, pointing out that a growing number of Americans are interested in protecting the environment. “There is a notion out there that going green means to spend money, but it’s actually the opposite.”

With the economic downturn, people are focusing on anything that costs them money, so energy efficiency is a draw, says Michael Murphy, the director of environmental affairs at Dell. Over the past two years, the Texas-based company, which is the world’s second-largest computer manufacturer, has pledged to become the greenest, with energy-efficient products and less packaging. Furthermore, Dell is the only manufacturer offering free recycling of products to consumers.

“Some people will buy because it’s energy-efficient. Some people will buy because they get free recycling,” Murphy says. “Green means different things for different customers.”

Consumers bewildered by an growing array of products that claim to be eco-friendly should tap the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, also known as EPEAT. The certification system launched in 2007 quickly became the most popular independent green high-tech logo among business consumers. Since January 2008, the federal government has given its nod of approval, requiring its agencies to purchase EPEAT-certified technology.

EPEAT aims to become a guide to the ever growing green high-tech jungle, says Sarah O’Brien, the group’s outreach director. “There is a lot of greenwashing out there. There is a lot of claiming without much to back it up,” she says. After her organization gains both businesses’ and the federal government’s trust, O’Brien hopes that its seal of approval will soon become popular enough to help consumers make choices. “There are a multitude of different green messages coming at them. Consumers’ best bet is to look for independent parties’ certifications,” she says.

Kelly Groehler, a spokeswoman for Best Buy—one of America’s most popular electronics retailers—says American consumers already seek guidance when making green purchases. “People who visit our store and shop online with us are looking to make smart choices when they purchase—and how to make the most of it,” she says, adding that energy efficiency and recycling are among Best Buy customers’ top priorities.

In the future, Groehler predicts, Americans will present varying concerns regarding the environment and purchases. “We are going to have consumers for whom the environmental labels are critical, but also consumers who aren’t quite there yet and are probably more focused right now on how they can save money in their household,” she says. The most important thing, Groehler says, will be to help them make the best possible choice.

For many consumers, that choice might have nothing to do with going green. Joe Mastropaolo, the owner of the Little Laptop Shop on Manhattan’s trendy Lower East Side, thinks so. He maintains that no customer has ever passed through the black graffiti-decorated entrance—which resembles a 1980s video game—in search of a green computer.

“What people ask for are more compact devices, not green features,” Mastropaolo says. “That’s just marketing.”

E-mail: dp2421@columbia.edu