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Why the Consumer Electronics Show is Going Greener in 2009

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The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES)— at which every new gadget debuting in the year ahead is trotted out for display in a football-sized stadium in Las Vegas — is upon us again. After spending days walking amidst rows of 82-inch flat screen TVs and pocketing useless tchotkes from hundreds of vendors at the show, you couldn’t imagine a more perfect event to embody the ultimate in consumerism and waste. But in 2008, CES introduced a “green” component, showcasing lower-power gadgets, solar-powered devices and recycled goods, in an attempt to make the show a little more palatable to the environmentally inclined. And in 2009, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the trade group behind CES, is expanding that green aspect even further, trying to adjust to both increasingly eco-friendly attitudes and leaner economic times.

“CES is going greener this year,” says Jill Fehrenbacher, creator of the Greener Gadgets conference, which CEA purchased last year for an undisclosed amount. (Disclosure: she’s also my sister, and I organized a panel at the first Greener Gadgets). CES is folding “Greener Gadgets” content into the show in various places, including a panel on Jan. 10 that will feature Mary Lou Jepsen, CEO of Pixel Qi and founder and former CTO of the One Laptop Per Child project; and Jeff Omelchuck, the executive director of the Green Electronics Council.

Since last year’s trial run, CES has also doubled the number of companies in its (newly renamed) Greener Gadgets Tech Zone, and the section has grown from just 520 square feet last year to more than 3,000 square feet this year. Exhibitors will include Better Energy Systems, which makes the Solio solar charger; Fuji, with its Enviromax batteries; Horizon Fuel Cell; and even cell phone maker Motorola. In addition, expect to see more eco-themed announcements from some of the CES headliners this year. CEA spokesperson Jennifer Bemisderfer tells us that industry-watchers should look out for environmental news and products from the likes of  Toshiba, Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and HP.

While it’s clear that the show, and participating companies, are promoting a greener agenda, the depressed economic climate has definitely put up some hurdles to doing so. CES is reportedly expecting significantly fewer attendees this year. That means the show is trying to be leaner, which is crimping some of its environmental aims. In 2008, CEA reportedly spent more than $110,000 on carbon offsets. While Bemisderfer says CEA is spending a similar amount on green aspects this year, she also confirmed that the group has no plans to purchase carbon offsets for the 2009 show.

Instead, CEA is concentrating on things like decreasing print production. (Planet Metrics, an exhibitor at the show, has partnered with CES to identify opportunities for the show to reduce its carbon footprint.) “There was a feeling here at CEA that, given the current economy, a better strategy would be to look for ways to reduce carbon emissions first,” Bemisderfer explains.

Beyond the current financial turmoil, though, CEA thinks green gadgets will be a money maker. From a business perspective, “going green” can give consumer electronics makers the ability to diversify on more than just price, says Jill Fehrenbacher. The trade group is holding the second annual Greener Gadgets conference in New York in February (the first since it was acquired by CEA), because CEA thinks the greener gadgets trend is here to stay. And consumers are increasingly starting to care about the life cycle of their gadgets, from factory floor to end-of-life recycling, and — as they have with organic food — those consumers will pay extra for more sustainable goods. While the green premium may fade in bad economic times, we’re guessing that, even if the downturn doesn’t let up, CES 2010 will look even greener than 2009.