Perhaps you have yet to rent “An Inconvenient Truth.” Maybe you honestly don’t lose sleep over the use of paper OR plastic bags. Do you cast a suspicious eye at “green” packaging labels, figuring much of it is marketing hype, and try to gracefully avoid those folks with the clipboards at your local Whole Foods urging you to sign a pledge to reduce your carbon footprint?

It’s O.K. You don’t have to be a Prius-driving, meatless chicken salad-loving environmental activist to keep reading this article. You can be weary or even wary of the “green movement.”

Though there are likely untold dozens of moral, community-centric, consciousness-raising reasons to consider the use of energy-efficient products, practices and selling points in your business, this article will contain none of them. This particular piece is about cash and the latest developments in an economic climate, which is increasingly attuned to a bevy of issues which fall under an umbrella term most people still can’t actually define: sustainability.

Economical Benefits of “Green”

Many manufacturers have been saying “green is hot” for over two years now, but custom retailers and their customers are starting to see very practical benefits behind the leafy green natural paper brochures. Benefits like more options on an install or a lower electricity bill, not to mention abiding by state laws. As NuVo Technologies CTO, Rick Kukulies, says, “The market for green products is not just people who are interested in being environmentally conscious. There’s a pragmatic approach.”

The pragmatism starts long before the customer is involved at all, in the R&D departments of manufacturers whose specialty is high-end home electronics. The sore economy has raised the cost of raw materials substantially in the last year. Prices for steel, copper and aluminum have doubled or tripled in some cases. Ditto the price of shipping components and finished products…those near-five-dollar gas prices aren’t just cutting into the family summer road trip fund, they’re inhibiting vendors too, and causing them to investigate the use of materials that weigh less and take up less space.

At NuVo Technologies, the cost crunch and the potential for creating something that would be eco-friendly as well as installer-friendly has led to the development of the Essentia E6G, the world’s first Energy Star-rated multi-room amplifier.

The Energy Star ranking system is a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to energystar.gov, a site many consumers are using for help picking products for their homes, residential electricity use by CE products is responsible for more than 25 percent of household usage. To earn Energy Star qualification, NuVo’s multi-zone audio system amplifier and keypads had to use less than one watt of power in standby mode. The NuVo engineers got it down to .056 watts.

Kukulies says, aside from drawing less juice, the product weighs just 6.85 pounds (“that’s 15 pounds of stuff I don’t have to ship”), produces less heat and has a significantly longer lifespan.

“To the installer, this means they have a lot more options. They have a smaller piece of equipment and they can put it in a rack, under cabinets, in entertainment centers or closet. You can put it in confined areas and you don’t have to leave as much air space around it,” said Kukulies, who reports his engineers have a Sirius-ready tuner primed for an Energy Star ranking as well.

E-Cycle America

Vendors aren’t just greening up the product line; they’re coming up with eco-friendly profitable service ventures as well.

On a gorgeous Saturday in June, Stereo Advantage, a Buffalo, N.Y., powerhouse doing over $20 million in electronics retail each year, hosted an e-cycling event in conjunction with Sony’s National Take Back Recycling Program. The two-day drive, heavily advertised on radio and in The Buffalo News, offered customers a chance to drop off all their old electronics, from gigantic old dusty speakers, to equally large consoles, like the vintage Sony Trinitrons.

Rick Caldwell, of Lancaster, N.Y., pulled into the Stereo Advantage parking lot with two big, beat-up CRTs in his trunk, thankful for an opportunity to send them somewhere other than his local landfill. “It’s amazing how this stuff accumulates,” said Caldwell, who recently purchased two new HDTVs. The Stereo Advantage staff handed Caldwell a $100 coupon off any Sony flat panel over $1,000.

Caldwell was one of hundreds to recycle his electronics no-charge at Stereo Advantage that weekend. COO Michael DeJoy says the store has an ongoing service, started last February around Super Bowl time, to pick up a customer’s old TV and send it to a specialized electronics recycler for a $10 fee. The free event with Sony proved to him that customers might be drawn to a more permanent drop-off service for their old computers, printers, cell phones and all manner of componentry.

Sony, in partnership with Waste Management Recycle America, a Texas-based “demanufacturer” with over 50,000 employees across North America, is hoping to establish 150 such permanent drop-off centers by September. They’ve already opened 138. (The Consumer Electronics Association is now producing an online list of recycling centers at www.MyGreenElectronics.org.)

“Our ultimate goal is to have a drop-off center within 20 miles of 95 percent of the U.S. population,” said Douglas Smith, corporate environmental affairs director at Sony. “It certainly makes environmental sense. It also makes business sense…The [e-cycling centers] are driving customers to stores and that’s absolutely win-win.”

According to Stereo Advantage CEO Al Walters, TV sales still make up 40 percent of the retailer’s business, but the most rapidly expanding branch of the electronics operation is its “Smart House” division, custom home theater and automation installs, which accounted for $3.2 million in sales last year. To help keep that portion of the business growing, the Stereo Advantage staff is starting to “speak green” to customers, both residential and corporate.

Greenspeak

It’s a custom sales strategy that is working across the country. Reps at two of the top home control vendors, Crestron (who recently named its automated lighting product line “Green Light”) and AMX, say they’ve seen the energy-conservation pitch work wonders.

“Here’s what to say to customers: ‘I can make your home more efficient,’” said Crestron rep Ken Vanemon, who was showing off a new touchpad software program, which displays both energy being used and energy savings per hour, to New Yorkers at the Digital Downtown technology showcase in June. “Progressive dealers and installers are speaking this language, and they’re the ones customers are migrating toward.”

What are some of the most effective words in this popular new language? Here’s a sampling:

RoHS—Otherwise known as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances. RoHS was originally a European Union directive to limit the use of six materials: lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and two flame retardants used in plastics called PBB and PBDE. RoHS took effect in European Union-member countries mid-way through 2006. Products with an RoHS symbol have that in-the-know European cachet with certain high-end customers.

LEED—Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a building rating system. Similar to the Energy Star system, LEED is a ranking that can be achieved when meeting certain requirements. Custom electronics can play a major role in identifying a building as “green,” especially when monitoring electricity or water usage and controlling the climate with automated shade systems.

ASHRAE—The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers is a non-profit group known for developing standards for sustainability, a fancy word for the attempts to make a building much less of an energy-hog than standard building codes allow. Manufacturers are starting to put the ASHRAE logo on their marketing materials. This could impress the architects and designers who have the ear of clients.

Not every automation client is going to be drawn in by a handful of acronyms, of course, and for those, AMX director of residential sales, Chris Westfall, suggests a more down-home approach.

“The people who buy AMX systems can afford $4 a gallon for gas, but they still don’t want to be wasteful. They are concerned about the environment, especially their personal environment, so approach it on a personal scale instead of a macro scale,” he said.

Westfall encourages integrators to use very specific questions about resources in the home. Questions along the lines of “Do you want me to set a trigger if water or energy usage goes over a certain level every month?” or “Would you like remote access to your vacation home so you can control the thermostat while you’re away?”

Westfall says the broad marketing concept may be green, but turning a customer’s eco-conscious inclinations into a sale, just like converting an installer to the use of energy-efficient products, is a matter of quite pragmatic day-to-day considerations. CR