Oftentimes the most insightful part of CES isn’t what was on the show floor — it’s what was missing from it. The convention draws exhibitors from all over the globe, and it’s stuffed with just about every type of technology you can imagine. But for the past few years (and in particular in 2020), one particular category of tech has been notably hidden at the show: Environmental tech.
Sure, there were a few sustainability-focused exhibitors scattered throughout the show floor this year, and some of the technologies on display do have environmental benefits (see: electric vehicles). Heck, there was even a small panel about renewable energy at one point. Green tech did admittedly have a small presence at CES 2020 — but it was exactly that: Small. In fact, it was so small that it was practically invisible amid the sea of shiny new gadgets and screens.
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This is problematic. Anthropogenic climate change is quite literally the biggest, most pressing problem facing humanity right now, and technology plays an instrumental role in helping us fix that problem. Yet at the Consumer Electronics Show — the largest technology expo in the world — environmental technologies are hardly even a blip on the radar. It could be stuffed full of solar, wind tech, and startups aimed at replacing plastic — but these kinds of eco-minded innovations are few and far between at CES.
On one level, this isn’t surprising. After all, it’s called the consumer electronics show — so it’s fundamentally designed to promote consumption, not environmentalism. But on another level, it’s puzzling. CES is all about the technologies that will help us build a better future, so it’s strange that innovations that address climate change are so scarce at the show. Planet-saving tech should be at center stage, but it isn’t.
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Part of this is because the Consumer Technology Association (the organization that runs CES) doesn’t choose who exhibits at the show. It doesn’t go out and pick specific companies or technologies for the expo, or go out of its way to invite anyone in particular. The exhibitors that end up at the show are the ones that pay to be there of their own volition, so the dearth of greentech companies at CES 2020 partially reflects a lack of attendance and interest in the show. But that’s not the only thing that’s going on here.
Another part of the problem is a structural one. There are always a few dozen environmental tech exhibitors at CES every year, but the way the show is organized effectively makes them invisible. The CTA doesn’t bundle envirotech companies together and give them a dedicated zone at the convention center, like it does for things like smart home, 3D printing, digital money, and a variety of other categories it deems significant enough to warrant highlighting. Instead, the show’s greentech exhibitors are scattered across the expo and therefore don’t have a unified presence. So, if you aren’t seeking these companies out specifically, you won’t find them. You’ll skip right past them and they’ll be lost among the ocean of other tech on display.
The good news is that these problems could easily be fixed. All the CTA needs to do is make environmental tech more of a focus at CES in the future. It doesn’t have the power to determine who attends the show, but it does have the ability to highlight certain things — and greentech should absolutely be one of those things in 2021 and beyond. Giving environmental tech a spotlight would not only help give those companies the exposure they need to thrive, but also demonstrate to other greentech companies that attending CES is worthwhile. You reap what you sow, and in this case, sowing the seeds of environmental innovation might be as simple as reshuffling the show floor.