The Dirty Secrets of Your Camera’s Manufacturer

Hey, camera makers! Stop lying to us.

We photographers are environmentally aware. Camera and equipment producers, however, are failing us. Most are only protecting their bottom lines while causing significant damage to the environment.

So, how environmentally friendly is your camera manufacturer? How much CO2 do they produce? Do they use mostly recycled materials? Are their products recyclable? Do you know? If you can’t find this information without difficulty, if it isn’t highlighted in an easy-to-understand format, and if they are making a big noise over small projects, then they are guilty of greenwashing.

Let’s start with the good by celebrating the filter and accessory company Urth, formerly known as Gobe. They produce exceptional filters at far more affordable prices than many of their competitors. Significantly, they are more than offset their carbon footprint by actively planting trees in rainforests. Each time we buy a filter from them, they plant five trees. Their website has clear information about what they are doing now and where they are placing effort to improve.

When exploring options to offset our impact, we quickly realized tree planting was the best way to do that because trees sequester carbon, purify water, and rejuvenate ecosystems. We fund tree planting projects run by Eden Reforestation Projects – our tree planting partner – to plant five trees with every Urth product and provide employment for people affected by deforestation.

So far, they have planted over five million trees, offsetting more than 1.6 million tons of CO2. Their ambitious target is to reach a billion trees by 2032. They are also committed to using low-impact materials. The longevity of their products that results from their quality keeps them out of landfills. All their packaging is recyclable too. What’s evident is their honesty and openness about their products. They give easy to find, precise, understandable data about what impact their products have and what they do to address that.

Accordingly, the business is thriving.

Sadly, most other photographic companies are not so open, hiding what little they are doing by greenwashing. These companies do one of two things. They either produce enormous, inaccessible documents that are impressive to look at, boring to read, but have little substance, or they don’t publish data at all.

Let’s take Canon as an example. They provide a mass of documentation that requires someone with lots of time on their hands and a significant understanding of environmental data to find the relevant information. You do have to search hard for the report, but when you find it and scroll through to page 47 of 133 pages, it says that in 2020 the production of their raw materials resulted in an estimated 3,147,000 tons of CO2. The development, production, and sales generated a further 940,100 tons. Transport of their products to their sales and other outlets, 304,000 tons. This amounts to just under 4.4 million tons of CO2. That’s before adding on a further 2.264 million tons resulting from their products’ use. They say their total product lifecycle of CO2 is higher than that, at 7.72 million tons.

To put this into context, the average American produces 19.8 tons of CO2 per year.

On top of that, their production process releases 0.8 tons of sulfur oxides, which can dissolve in water to form sulfuric acid. 47.9 tons of nitrogen oxides, which can dissolve to form nitric acid. They also emit 372 tons of controlled chemical substances, as well as discharge 6.755 million cubic meters of wastewater.

In a bold headline of a flowchart is the word “Recycling.” They used 1,248 tons of reused parts and 2,303 tons of recycled materials. Great! Yet, this is a drop in the ocean compared to the 616,000 tons of new resources used to produce their goods.

They claim they have good news, and they make a big noise about their CO2 production has dropped significantly over the years. But it is still huge, and that reduction seems painfully slow.

They also shout about their Bird Branch project, which involves “bird centered activities.” That includes surveying migratory birds, adding nesting boxes to their site, cleaning nests, and encouraging people to photograph birds. Does this sound like a significant contribution to the environment? To me, it doesn’t.

Compared to some other big businesses, Canon is doing better, but when you contrast it to the effort put in by the relatively small company, Urth, then they don’t sound so impressive, do they?

It should also be noted that they also help with humanitarian aid to the tune of 8 million yen ($62,462 USD) as part of a total social contribution of 2.2 billion yen (approximately $17 million). That sounds notable too, but with net sales at 5.51 trillion yen ($30.55 billion), it represents about 1/1800th of that. Meh!

Sony’s Road to Zero webpage has impressive infographics that talk about curbing climate change, promoting biodiversity, controlling chemical substances, and conserving resources. But the webpage contains no real substance. Their “aim to provide environmentally conscious products” and “minimizing consumption and maximizing recycled materials,” or their declaration to “establish our own chemical substance management standards” and saying “we are aware that our operations may affect the natural environment in various ways” are all typically vague statements used in greenwashing.

Their global environmental plan says Sony is “striving to achieve a zero environmental footprint” throughout the life cycle of their products and businesses by 2050. Yet this is just a target, not a measurement of success.

You must tap on the small hamburger menu to find their data and their performance results. Even then, they are only shown in percentages. Their highlighted 5% drop of energy consumption doesn’t reveal they are, in fact, still using a massive 25,000 terajoules (25,000,000,000,000,000 joules.)

Delving deep into Sony’s corporate website, you can download a PDF document that reveals their true environmental impact. On page 131 and 132 of a 199-page document, you can discover that in 2020 their sites alone produced over 1.2 million tons of CO2. But there are another 17-million tons produced from other factors such as purchased goods and services, transport and distribution, waste, employment commuting, and mostly the use of their sold products accounts for 11,403,000 tons alone. Note that Sony doesn’t use the metric ton, so the numbers appear smaller.

They also produced 15.45 million cubic meters of wastewater. However, they have one notable success: of their 51,000 tons of other waste, they recycle all except 1,000 tons of it.

Like Canon, Sony is gradually getting better, but are they doing it quickly enough? To me, it seems like they are not.

Nikon, too, is aiming for zero carbon emissions by 2050. Exceeding its target of an 18.2% reduction from 2014 to 2021, achieving a 25.9% reduction, still averages out at just 3.7% per year. Also, as we saw earlier, a 25.9% reduction of an enormous number still leaves an enormous number.

They too hide their actual CO2 production figures on page 47 of their sustainability report: 182,625 tons. The also emit 3,297 cubic meters of wastewater, 27 tons of Dichloropentafluropropane (stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming, and health impacts), 10 tons of toluene (membrane damage to the leaves in plants, toxicity to marine life, harmful to human health), and so on.

Nikon highlights their participation in Earth Hour. That’s just one hour out of 8,760 hours per year.

Of course, these are just the three biggest companies, and I am sure most other businesses are performing similarly poorly and hiding their results in similar ways. Furthermore, the problem won’t just be limited to the photographic industry, but most manufacturers in most industries. Indeed, Canon, Sony, and Nikon all produce more than just cameras.

So, let’s start pressuring the manufacturers, all of them, to tidy up their acts and let them give us these ten reasons to buy from them.

1. Publish and highlight clear and understandable environmental data that your consumers can easily access and understand.

2. Own up to your failings and address them quickly.

3. Demonstrate your commitment by making ambitious year-on-year targets for reductions in CO2 that reach zero far sooner than 2050.

4. Stop fobbing us off by spinning your data and greenwashing your performance.

5. Offset your entire current CO2 production and more with tree planting in areas that have suffered deforestation, and, like Urth, join the global network of 1% for the Planet.

6. Switch to renewable energy at all manufacturing plants.

7. Change your production processes to reduce hazardous and environmentally harmful chemicals, and prevent them from entering the environment.

8. Make your products recyclable and use recycled materials in their manufacturing.

9. Encourage and help your customers to do the same.

10. Reduce your wastewater.In the meantime, let us photographers shame these big, rich corporations shouting about the minute actions they take. We should also encourage them to do much better by using the power of our wallets. When possible, let’s buy products that are demonstrably better for the planet.

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