Providing Sustainable IT with Nancy Gillis

November 4, 2020

Nancy Gillis is the CEO of the Green Electronics Council (GEC), a mission-driven non-profit that seeks to achieve a world of only sustainable technology. GEC manages EPEAT, the leading global ecolabel for ICT and other electronic products. Nancy came to GEC from Ernst & Young (EY), where she served as the Global Lead for Resilient and Responsible Supply Chains. Prior to that, she served as the Director of the Federal Supply Chain Office at the General Services Administration (GSA), the public procurement agency for the US government, where she was responsible for the inclusion of sustainability requirements in approximately $45B of procurements. Nancy received her graduate degree in Information Technology from Georgetown University.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider, and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian. I am so excited to have with us today, Nancy Gillis. She is the CEO of the Green Electronics Council. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Nancy.

Nancy Gillis: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am so excited to be here. And I am so looking forward to our conversation.

John: So am I. And before we get into all the important and impactful work you are doing at the Green Electronics Council, can you share a little bit of the Nancy Gillis’ journey and story?

Nancy: Sure, I would love to because I think it is an interesting one and one in which I hope many, both younger professionals and women professionals, consider and potentially follow. And by that I mean, I am in an organization. We will talk about the Green Electronics Council that focuses on the intersection of sustainability, of technology, and of supply chains. And that is a really interesting and impactful intersection to be at. And I got there because as a young one, myself, and as many young people globally are now, I became interested in our earth. And I fell in love and what it offers of plants and animals, and played in the backyard and appreciated that.

So, I was first and foremost a sustainability advocate. And then I do not want to date myself, but I was still around when records were there and through the translation to CDs, and iPod so technology all of a sudden became something in which that is where my music wind. And of course, I wanted to be a hip person so I kept up with that. So, not only was I appreciating the nature and the natural world, I was also appreciating the impact of technology. And then when I started to put those two together, I started to recognize that my appreciation of the world and technologies were meeting up and where technology does a lot of fundamental, fabulous things like this podcast. But it also continues to be the source of a lot of bad things, environmental impacts that I did not know about and I started to learn about. And social impacts, the people working globally to make these great products happen. So, I could listen to my music, podcasts, or take classes. And that is where I hit that third area, which was looking at the supply chain because I cannot have these products in a way to where they do not hurt people and planet without looking at the supply chain.

So, that is where I ended up. So, I am a person who got my education in technology. I am a technical weenie, but also in system modeling, which supply chains or systems – global systems, important systems. And I have put those two educational backgrounds together in a job that is a nonprofit, where I get to be an advocate, and actually invest and I love first and foremost of the planet and other people on it. So, that is a little bit about myself.

John: That is wonderful. That is just wonderful. And, you know, frankly speaking, and I just wish we had more of you in this world. The world would be a better and greener place. But that is why you are here today to share your story and also the story of the Green Electronics Council. And for our listeners who want to find Nancy, and the Green Electronics Council, and our colleagues, and all the great and important work they are doing, please go to www.greenelectronicscouncil.org. I am on your site now. It is a wonderful site. There are lots of great information and important information here. Can you just start with what is the real mission? What is the baseline mission of the Green Electronics Council?

Nancy: Good question. So as I mentioned, kind of my own personal motivation and passion is sustainability, right?

John: Right.

Nancy: So making sure that the world continues to be both environmentally and socially as good as it can. And so the Green Electronics Council, that is kind of its mission as well. But it is also focused on a recognition of the value of technology. So what the Green Electronics Council tries to do, they are trying to create a world of only sustainable technology. And there are other organizations that are trying to do the same thing. So the way that we do it is rather unique. We seek to harness the power of purchasing the stuff that we buy. But it is not necessarily the power of individual purchases, because there are so many of them. And we are a small nonprofit. So they are kind of hard to influence.

John: Right.

Nancy: We actually seek to influence institutional purchasers. Those are the purchasers either on the public side, so government folk that at a national level, at the municipality, the city, or even private sector. So those big companies that we read about that are like trillion dollars in valuation, we try to get them so when they buy, they buy sustainable technology. And when they buy it, and these are individuals in their sourcing or procurement function, who by a stroke of a pen, one buying decision buy thousands of technology – laptops, mobile phones, copiers, printers, monitors, televisions, you name it. And in influencing them, and when buying so many, and buying only sustainable versions of it, that is a big demand signal to all of these companies who make those products. So, the Green Electronics Council simplistically, again, what we do is we seek to influence that the institutional purchasers, those buyers, to buy credible, sustainable versions of all of these different technologies that they use, to serve as a demand signal to influence the design and the supply chain behaviors of the major technology brand. That is what we do.

John: Got it. So you are known for your ecolabel, the EPEAT, that you have created, the EPEAT label. Can you explain to our listeners how that was created, why that was created, and what it means in terms of, as you put it, institutional purchasing?

Nancy: Good question. So you are right. The Green Electronics Council, in our support of institutional purchases globally, we got a number of tools and resources that we make available. And I will think about it. You are a purchaser. You are either buying for, I do not know the country, Germany.

John: Right.

Nancy: Or the country, Canada.

John: Right.

Nancy: And you have to buy 10,000 laptops, right? Because you are disseminating them to all of those offices of your government throughout your country. And of course, those laptops need to do a number of things. One of those is to be sustainable. So as you are looking at the fact of their size, and how fast they are, and how much memory they have, and all these other things that the people who are going to use them want to meet, then you also need to think about sustainability. So how can you think about sustainability as easy as possible, without even having to know about what is the recycled content and whether or not has hazardous materials, and those interested children actually put these together? I mean, it could be very overwhelming.

So as you mentioned, what we have created is an ecolabel. It basically is this thing that you can ask for EPEAT, and by saying, does your product meet EPEAT? You do not have to worry about calling out in your procurement, or when you buy these individual environmental and social requirements. All you have to say is EPEAT, and what we have done is we have made sure that those individual requirements, the one environmentally and socially that a product needs to address. So anywhere in that product lifecycle, so did conflict minerals, extraction phase. Conflict minerals come into play, where these products manufactured and assembled in an environmentally and socially responsible way. Is this product built for energy-efficiency when you use it, right? And increasingly, most importantly, when I am done with this product, is it going to be able to be recycled? Can I repair it, or is it just going to go to the trash? All of those things that you want those purchasers to care about under sustainability, we have wrapped them up really nicely in that ecolabel EPEAT. So, all that purchaser has to do when they are buying 10,000 of those be it a laptop or whatever other technology that EPEAT covers, they just need to ask for EPEAT, and boom, they get these highly sustainable products.

John: I know although you have created this guidance and the terminology EPEAT for institutional purchasing, as you say, a country, or a large organization that really can move the needle in sustainability. Is this something for our listeners who are just general consumers of electronics and other technologies also to be looking out for the EPEAT label themselves?

Nancy: They can, and that is a great question. In fact, I bet some of your purchasers are saying, you know, that are also listening to the podcast, “Hey, I am a purchaser. I have never heard of this EPEAT.”

John: Right.

Nancy: How impactful can this EPEAT be?

John: Right.

Nancy: Well, you know, what if they have never heard of us, that is okay. We welcome them to come to, as you pointed out, our website. We actually have a website, that’s www.epeat.net, for all the products who meet our criteria are on, so they can go there. But if they are going, tell me how successful, it is okay, because as I said we actually have not been targeted them. And here is a benefit that they should feel comfortable about, which is when you’ve got those institutional purchasers actually carrying the water, making that EPEAT requirement, and all of the major dollar spend are requiring EPEAT, then you’ve got the companies, just some of the companies that participate in EPEAT are ones such as Apple, Dell, HP, HPE, Asus, Acer. So a whole litany, that is just a sample of some of the brands.

When those institutional purchasers are making those requirements, those brands are meeting them. That means they are making more credibly sustainable products. And now think about it, it is not as if those brands are going to say, “You know what, I am going to do a supply chain that is highly sustainable and pumps out the sustainable products. And then I am going to build a whole other supply chain and all the costs related to make non-sustainable products.” Companies do not do that. So what is happening is, the companies are pumping out these more sustainable products to meet the demand of the institutional purchasers and the listeners to your podcast for going out. It is a high likelihood that they actually bought one of those EPEAT sustainable products and did not know it because that is the impact of institutional purchases. In fact, if one thing that your listeners can take away is an unsung hero in today’s sustainability and climate change movement, are purchases. But people who go in every day, look at contracts, make purchasing decisions, and make the choice to put that power towards credible, sustainable products.

John: I love it. Nancy, so explain to our listeners how it works. So, if I am a manufacturer, if I am Apple, or Dell, or any of the other great and wonderful brands and iconic brands you just mentioned, and others, of course, want to get the EPEAT label for the newest gadget I have just created, then I come to your organization, and you put it through some sort of the rigorous testing and your algorithm to make sure that it hits the criteria to be labeled EPEAT certified?

Nancy: Kind of.

John: Okay.

Nancy: You’re real close on that.

John: Okay.

Nancy: So you are right. If we have got a brand who says, “Hey, I want to be covered by EPEAT,” and EPEAT is the leading global ecolabel for technology products. It is used by more purchasers than any other ecolabel. And right now, it is used by purchasers in 42 countries. So you can well imagine why we are honored to actually have those iconic brands be part of the EPEAT program. But it is not easy, and they’ll be the ones to tell you that because if you are meeting the needs of institutional purchasers, and they are buying a whole bunch of, I mean, just in 2019 there were more than $4 trillion worth of ban against EPEAT. I am telling you, unsung heroes are those purchasers, they are putting a lot of power behind this.

And so, let us just say there is a brand and they say, “Okay, I want my products in this category.” And again, EPEAT covers things such as laptops, tablets, mobile phones, televisions, printers, multifunctional copier devices, even servers, right? For their data centers that are so important now to connectivity, things such as that. So we covered most of the technology that is currently in what we would consider our home or external office environment. And if a brand wants to get it covered, they need to come to us, and they need to first signal. And then what we do is, of course, we show them the criteria that their products need to meet. Now, we are a unique label, and that we are not just the required criteria. So it is not just, “Oh, I need it, I need EPEAT.” No, no, no. We are one that likes innovation and technology. The one I talked about. I am passionate about technology. Technology is awesome. And we want more better technology, but we also want that more better technology to be increasingly more sustainable.

So for EPEAT, the criteria are required. You do not meet the required, you are never going to be considered EPEAT. But we also have optional criteria. So a brand can come in and say, okay, I have met the rather high required, that was tough enough. But you know what, I am committed to sustainability. Because I too am a brand in the technology sector, so my employees, and my customers, I know they care about sustainability. So I have chosen to have my products meet optional criteria. And it is purely a choice. And these been our criteria that really make sure that that product continues to be sustainable on the environmental and social front. And the more optional these products meet, the more that product is considered either as silver, or the highest level, gold. So EPEAT is an ecolabel where you can buy EPEAT products, EPEAT products at the silver level, EPEAT products at the gold level. And if you are at the gold, it means that that company has actually invested the maximum amount to make sure that their products are sustainable. That they are personally invested in that. And they are invested in making sure that those products, that innovation is happening, just not for usability like the camera is better, the sound is better, the RAM is bigger, so the battery lasts the longest, but also that it is as innovative as possible for the benefit of people and the planet. And so that is a little bit about it. So you have got a brand who comes to us, they pick the criteria optional ones, again has to meet the required or else we would not even talk to them. And then you would think so do we assess it? No, no, no. Because we have developed the criteria. It would be a little bit of conflict if we said, “Oh, yes, you meet it.”

So, no, we send them out to major certification firms. These are firms that again, maybe some of your listeners are aware of, but these are the big, been in business for 100 years, certifying other aspects of technology. So firms such as Underwriter Laboratories. If you look at a lot of your products, those are the guys who make sure that the technology is safe. That when you plug it in, your hair does not stand on end, it’s so safe. Those Underwriter Laboratories Company to Rhineland, so we even have an international firm. And again, these being firms, they are actually the ones who work with the brand and check those criteria, make sure that those products meet our criteria. And once those firms say, “Yes, we checked it, this product actually is,” then we put it on that website that I talked to you about, the www.epeat.net.

John: Right.

Nancy: And then it is an EPEAT product. And then all those big institutional purchasers, the ones who spend about $4 trillion last year on EPEAT, that is when they can go ahead and feel comfortable about buying it.

John: I love it. For our listeners who just join us, we’ve got Nancy Gillis. She is the CEO of the Green Electronics Council with us today. To find Nancy and her colleagues and all the important work that they are doing at the Green Electronics Council, please go to www.greenelectronicscouncil.org, or as Nancy said earlier, to learn about all the products that are EPEAT certified go to www.epeat.net. Nancy, we are living through this strange and tragic COVID-19 period that has hit not only us in Portland, and Fresno, and the United States, but everyone around the world right now. And work at home has now become normalized, which means people have left their offices where they’ve had their desktops and all their– let’s just call it legacy electronics sitting in their office and their desks, hopefully, one day to return to in some way, shape, or form. But now they have had to also outfit their homes to be connected vis-a-vis Zoom, and emails, and text messages. So, there is now a boom in the electronics industry. What is your take in terms of the technological boom that we are living through partially due to this COVID-19 pandemic, and all the electronics that are coming out of it, and it is in relationship with the future of sustainability, and the ecosystem of our planet?

Nancy: Wow, if that is your closing question, I thought you were just going to ask me, so what is your thought about sustainability? But you have just wrapped the future and planet and put it all together. But– [crosstalk]

John: You are up for it and we do not have to eat the elephant in one bite, you can just go bite by bite, and we could walk through it together. Let me hear you because I know you have a take on this and I really am interested in that. I know our listeners would be as well.

Nancy: I do. And I appreciate you allowing me to tease you and to do so in such a way that does not minimize the fact that we are at a time that, I even tell my own staff, is unprecedented. And it seems like such a small word for where we find ourselves in this world. It does not do justice to the tremendous upheaval, and change, and cost of life that we are living through because of COVID. And one of the things that we really see with this almost immediate move towards working from home has been that, you know, we started this conversation I said, hey, consumers, individual consumers, if they do not know EPEAT that is okay because we have been targeting institutional purchasers.

Well, guess what, with everybody working now from home, those individuals, consumers, they have become institutional purchasers. Because they are buying products to be able to work from home. They are buying technology products on behalf of the need to work for their companies, and so that kind of has made them institutional purchasers. And with so much reliance on technology, there has been a tremendous increase in the demand for connectivity, for networks to work. We find ourselves also because we are at home and sadly, this is not a good thing. It becomes a little challenging to separate, right? We no longer close our office door, pick up our satchel, and go down to the parking lot and either get in our car or wait for the bus. We do not do that anymore. We hopefully get up from the couch and walk out of our bedroom then to our kitchen.

John: Right.

Nancy: And because that separation is not there anymore, we find ourselves actually maybe staying a little bit longer on the computer and maybe using it a bit more, just getting the next email. So suffice it to say, this tremendous move has really caused more people to buy more technology. In fact, there are waiting lists for certain types of laptops and so forth because everybody needed them all at the same time. It is kind of like toilet paper, right? It is really hard to get when you really need it. But that usage and the inability for us to use what we have done before to separate work has meant that there is so much more draw on the energy. There is so much more draw on those products. There is so much more buying of those products.

So people who, yes, we were end-consumers and actually our ecolabel EPEAT was not one that we were targeting. You have now become institutional purchasers. And I need your listeners to recognize their power now as well. I need your listeners to recognize that now when they have a choice, they should be actively seeking credible, sustainable technology products. And they can do that through, of course, EPEAT. And we’re proud to say that actually, Amazon which is where a lot of people go, especially in North America but also overseas, to find technology products. That Amazon is featuring EPEAT products as part of their climate pledge. So, you can go on Amazon and you can find EPEAT products.

John: That is awesome.

Nancy: You could also go find products such as ENERGY STAR, which is another ecolabel that has been out there even longer than EPEAT. And EPEAT actually has ENERGY STAR in it. So when you are buying an EPEAT product, you are already getting an ENERGY STAR product. But what I would like to say is that for all of us now who are constrained, first and foremost, protect yourselves and of course, do stay home, do try to socially distance, do the wearing of your mask, if I may say that on your show, but do be doing that. We are a science-driven organization. We believe in science. And that is what the best science is telling us. But also, as you are working from home, if you are one of those who are lucky, we are lucky if we are able to continue to work and have it be from home. Now is your time. If you care about this Earth, if you care about this planet, if you have children that are driving you mad, that you still care enough about them, to keep this planet for them buy credible, sustainable products. Buy those laptops, those TVs, those tablets that you are putting in your children’s hands so they can continue to be educated buy those things and look for EPEAT. That is what I would ask.

John: Nancy, that is a wonderful way to close a show. I just want you to know you are always welcome back on the Impact to share all the great things you are working on at the Green Electronics Council. For our listeners again, to find Nancy and her colleagues at the Green Electronics Council, please go to www.greenelectronicscouncil.org, or to find the EPEAT certified electronics to purchase please go to www.epeat.net. Nancy Gillis, you are an inspiration. You are making a huge impact. You are making the world a better and greener place. I am grateful and thank you for being with us today on the Impact Podcast.

Nancy: Thank you so much for this opportunity, and be safe and be well to you and to all who listened.