The gadget dissector says the green electronics group’s recently released independent test of the recyclability of Apple’s MacBook Pro, along with ultrathin notebooks from Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba, amounts to “greenwashing” the group’s stated standards for promoting sustainable, recyclable computers.
It seems that the last six months has brought an increasing focus on Apple’s conscience as everything from its labor practices in Asia to it its sourcing of power for its to data centers to how recyclable its computers are has been scrutinized.
Apple has actually begun to respond to negative publicity surrounding its sustainability practices, first by responding publicly to Greenpeace’s criticism of its power sourcing at its North Carolina data center and the most recent example being its quick reversal of its decision on the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registry. Following some bad PR surrounding Apple’s decision to exit the government certification of green electronics standard, Apple abruptly reversed course, posting a letter on its website Friday from its hardware engineering head Bob Mansfield in which Mansfield described the original decision as a mistake.
While no one knows for certain why Apple originally removed 39 laptops, desktops and monitors from the government’s EPEAT registry of green approved electronics, reasonable speculation surrounds the fact that the battery and the display in the new Macbook Pro with retina display were glued in, making them difficult to recycle. Apple is a design focused company, which is why I found its orignal decision on EPEAT consistent with its culture, which puts great design and usability ahead of every other priority, which is why, for example, we’re still waiting for an LTE iPhone. Apple refused to build a phone that might have subpar performance due to battery issues related to LTE and if gluing the display case into the new Macbook made that laptop a millimeter thinner, the company wouldn’t hesitate to do so.
EPEAT CEO Robert Frisbee commented that Apple told him “their design direction was no longer consistent with EPEAT requirements.” And upon Apple’s return to the fold, Frisbee posted that he looked “forward to Apple’s strong and creative thoughts on ongoing standards development,” and noted that “the outcome must reward new directions for both design and sustainability.” It’s not hard to read between the lines and figure out that Apple wants credit for its avoidance of toxic materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), reporting greenhouse gas emissions for each product, and the overall energy efficiency of its computers while at the same time being offered some leeway to design its products on much of its own terms. Good thing Apple has a significant say in how the future standards will be written.
It’s helpful to contrast Apple’s behavior surrounding the registry with how it has handled the greening of its data centers. Apple decided to build its data center in the North Carolina hub, which has proved so attractive to big IT because of its dirt cheap power which comes from coal and nuclear power.
But pressure has mounted on leading IT companies to source clean power for their data centers and Apple ultimately opted to build two 20 megawatt solar farms complemented with a 4.8 megawatt fuel cell facility.
For starters, greening its data centers with clean power has no impact on the end consumer product or the consumer experience. If anything, a miniscule minority of customers will feel better about using a greener iCloud. But more importantly, Apple’s renewable energy generation may actually make its consumer products perform better.
Not because consumers care or are even aware of the solar farms but because iCloud will become a more stable product. Power outages are on everyone’s mind right now and the last month has seen Amazon go down, impacting Netflix and Pinterest, and salesforce.com had two interruptions of service over just a few weeks period. While it’s clearly very expensive to generate on site renewable power, it does act as an insurance policy against outages and puts data centers in a position of using the grid power as a backup or a compliment rather than being fully dependent.
From Apple’s back and forth with EPEAT to its decision to source clean power for its North Carolina data center, the central thread is that the company will be sustainable as long as it doesn’t impact product development. And if there’s been a small shift in the last year, it’s just that Apple is starting to respond to public criticism, likely a hedge against the extremely small possibility that one day it might have a competitor (Google) with better green credentials (and a product in the same ballpark of quality). For now, the company will put design first and throw in some sustainability, particularly when, as in the case of the North Carolina data center, there are benefits to the consumer.
Question of the week
Here’s our daily pick of stories about Apple from around the web you shouldn’t miss. Today’s installment: confusion over iCloud, how EPEAT ratings actually work, Steve Jobs feared Google acquiring Yelp, how the iPhone and Samsung are dominating mobile industry value, and Mountain Lion’s pending release.
Following an outcry from environmentalists and customers, Apple is reversing its decision to walk away from EPEAT certification for its computers. On Friday, outgoing SVP of Hardware Engineering Bob Mansfield posted a letter on Apple’s website calling the move “a mistake.”
Since bowing out of EPEAT certification for future Macs, Apple has seen at least one public agency say it can’t buy its computers anymore. Apple has responded by emphasizing its other green credentials. But it may also be helping to write future recyclability standards.
The city of San Francisco will block purchases of Apple desktops and laptops after the company removed its products from a government registry of green electronics, called EPEAT. I do think you’ll see some government agencies and perhaps some large companies reduce their Apple purchases due to Apple’s exit from the registry but the impact on Apple’s bottom line (or top line for that matter) will be a rounding error, at best. While Apple wants to be sustainable and has said in the future that all of the power for its data centers will be renewable, nothing at the company is more important than great design. One of the suggestions for why Apple exited the registry was that the battery in the new Macbook Pro was glued in, making it inseparable from the body for recycling. But for a company so committed to design, having outside standards imposed on it for how it could design a consumer product is really a non-starter.
Just days after news hit that Apple no longer wants its computers and monitors evaluated for EPEAT certification, the first public agency has said it will no longer be allowed to buy Macs as a result. The City of San Francisco is (unsurprisingly) first up.
Last month Apple asked that EPEAT, the standards group responsible for rating the recyclability of electronics products, drop 39 of its computers and monitors from its rankings. The company is being honest about prioritizing design over recyclability. But will mainstream consumers care?
Websites like iFixit are meant to provide a guide for out-of-warranty repairs, take stock of components and satisfy some geeky curiosity — consumer watchdogs, they are not. Yet DIY sites and the people that run them are also exposing, in the most literal sense, how electronics makers are fashioning their wares and if they live up to their claims, eco and otherwise. Scrutiny aside, online DIY resources are also a treasure trove of insight into the levels of user serviceability that green gadget buyers can expect out of their electronics.
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which is making an effort to be greener in 2009, officially kicks off this morning — and already the eco-announcements are piling up. Electronics makers are claiming their hardware is more energy efficient than the next, manufacturers are launching recycling programs, and devices that just make your life easier (such as navigation services) are being painted as green.
Here are 5 announcements already out by the first morning of CES:
1). Motorola Calls Up Recycled Water Bottles: The largest U.S. cell phone maker has launched a phone — the MOTO W233 “Renew” — that is made partly from recycled water bottles and is fully recyclable. It’ll be available first from T-Mobile USA this quarter. In addition to the more eco-materials in the phone, Motorola (s MOT) says the phone is also “the world’s first carbon neutral phone,” because Motorola is offsetting the carbon emitted for the manufacturing, distribution and operation of the phone with Carbonfund.org (wonder how they calculated that given the complexities).
2). E-Waste Recycling Ramping Up: At CES 2008 the North American divisions of Panasonic (s PC) and Toshiba, along with Sharp Electronics, joined forces to form Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Co. LLC, with a plan to manage collection and recycling programs. This year, the group says it is expanding its current program to 280 sites in the U.S., with one spot in each state and hundreds more locations planned for the next couple of years.
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