Apple and EPEAT: What it means

The Wall Street Journal’s Joel Schectman reported last week that Apple has asked environmental organization EPEAT to remove from its product registry all of the company’s 39 certified desktop computers, monitors, and laptops.

If the previous paragraph has left you scratching your head, don’t worry: You’re not alone. For just such a reason, we’ve put together a quick rundown of the move’s significance; while it may not make you an expert on all things environmental and technological, it might at least give you something to talk about at your next dinner party.

What is EPEAT?

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is a nonprofit organization that helps promote “environmentally preferable products.” It’s also backed by the federal government—in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency—and industry partners. Until recently, that latter list included Apple, who helped develop the standard.

The group gives out three levels of certification—gold, silver, and bronze—based on a mix of required and optional criteria. While all EPEAT-certified products must at least meet the required criteria, higher rankings are given to those which meet more of the optional criteria.

EPEAT focuses on the overall lifecycle of a product, using details such as the materials used in the products, how long the product will last, energy conservation, packaging, and more. The group also takes into account whether the manufacturers offer takeback and recycling of old products and support services like warranties, which extend the life of products.

Previously, much of Apple’s Mac line was rated EPEAT Gold, meaning that not only did the products meet EPEAT’s required standards, they also met at least 75 percent of the organization’s optional standards.

What’s the big deal?

Well, EPEAT isn’t simply a nonprofit environmental organization. Due to Executive Order 13423, 95 percent of products purchased by federal agencies have to be EPEAT certified. So, despite Apple touting its products as highly environmentally friendly, federal agencies will be restricted from buying the vast majority of their computers from Apple.

The same is true for some state, city, and municipal offices. The city of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, for example, has already said that Apple products “will no longer qualify” for purchase by city agencies, a move backed by the city’s chief information officer.

In addition, some companies and higher education institutions also use EPEAT as a guideline for purchasing electronic equipment, though they are not required to do so by law.

Granted, while Apple has recently made inroads in corporations and government, those sources make up only a small part of the company’s market. Education takes a slightly larger slice, but it’s still a fairly small percentage when compared to the company’s sales to the consumer market at large.

Why did Apple pull its products?

Good question. Apple’s been fairly tight-lipped about the decision, but company spokesperson Kristin Huguet did tell The Loop that the company “takes a comprehensive approach to measuring our environmental impact and all of our products meet the strictest energy efficiency standards backed by the US government, Energy Star 5.2.” In addition, Huguet added, Apple reports additional environmental information on its website, including areas not covered by EPEAT’s guidelines.

It’s worth noting, however, that Energy Star only covers the energy-efficiency of a product, not other factors taken into account by EPEAT, such as recyclability or materials.

Some speculation about the EPEAT withdrawal suggests that the root cause might lie with Apple's latest products. The company’s newest devices have often become more difficult to disassemble, making it harder to remove components—such as the toxic materials in the battery or the glass glued to the aluminum case—for recycling.

Everything in its place: The cramped interior of the new Retina display MacBook Pro.

In particular, the recently released Retina display MacBook Pro did not apparently meet EPEAT’s criteria for disassembly. That’s not especially shocking, as a teardown by iFixit led its CEO to conclude that the new Mac was “the least repairable laptop [iFixt has] ever taken apart.”

Given that the Retina MacBook Pro represents Apple’s design vision going forward, it’s understandable that the company might find itself at odds with EPEAT, especially when it comes to the marketing of the company’s most prominent new product. It’s not hard to imagine that Apple would rather remove all of its products than deal with why its flagship Mac was not certified.

Indeed, EPEAT spokesperson Sarah O’Brien said that Apple had told the organization that it plans on going in a different direction with its products.

You’ve mentioned Macs. What about iOS devices?

Now that’s paying attention. EPEAT actually doesn’t cover smartphones and tablets at all, meaning none of Apple’s iOS devices were ever in the product registry in the first place. And a loophole in that above mentioned Executive Order says that government agencies are not required to use EPEAT if there is no EPEAT standard for a particular product.

That means federal agencies have no restrictions on purchasing iOS devices, and given that Apple has been selling more and more iOS devices than Macs, that’s another reason why the company may not be as concerned about dropping its products from EPEAT’s registry. That said, there still could be some blowback from Apple’s decision to eschew the standard, which could affect the purchase of any of its products.

Does this mean Apple isn’t making environmentally-friendly products?

Toxic avenger: Apple provides substantial environmental information about its products on its website.

Not really. After all, the products that Apple pulled from the registry haven’t themselves changed—they’re just as environmentally friendly as they were before. Despite intense scrutiny from organizations like Greenpeace, Apple has remained fairly transparent about its environmental information, listing information on its website about its carbon footprint, use of toxic substances, and recycling initiatives.

Going forward, freedom from EPEAT’s constraints may mean that Apple can make decisions about its product design that would have been otherwise unfeasible—but it also means that there may not be an easy, objective way to judge the environmental factors of its future products.

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