How green is Apple?

How green is Apple: Good citizenship or good business?

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There’s little doubt that Apple is turning greener. But industry watchers say that the company is crowing about improvements it would have had to make anyway. “It’s not just about manufacturers doing the right thing,” says IDC research analyst David Daoud. “It’s really the market forcing them to do so.”

In 2007, the White House issued an executive order requiring that at least 95 percent of the electronic products bought by federal agencies meet standards set by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) a system for assessing a tech product’s green attributes. “Ultimately, if you want to sell to the federal government, you have to be EPEAT-certified,” says Daoud.

Corporate tech buyers are going green, too. “A lot of companies are saying, ‘Well, if the federal government is doing it, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use the same requirements,’” says Daoud.

Similarly, if Apple and other tech vendors want to sell computers in the European Union, they must meet standards set by the European Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (better-known as the RoHS directive (PDF)), which restricts a variety of materials including lead, mercury, cadmium, and BFRs.

The bottom line is that going green is good business. “It’s expensive [for computer manufacturers] to have two parallel processes, one that’s greener than the other, says Greenpeace’s Casey Harrell. “Apple is obviously paying attention. Its new MacBooks earned an EPEAT Gold rating (the highest available), and they exceed RoHS standards.

Political Piñata

Whatever its motivations for polishing its green credibility are, Apple remains a target for environmentalists. Much of their criticism stems from Apple’s unwillingness to disclose information those environmentalists seek. But most people don’t think that Apple is against green measures; it’s just that, like its CEO, it hates being told what to do.

“I dearly love Apple; many of us do. But the belligerent interface between the company and the environmental community is bizarre,” says Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network (BAN). To dig up details about Apple’s recycling program, for example, Puckett says BAN was forced to go through the office of Al Gore, who sits on Apple’s board of directors.

Greenpeace’s Casey Harrell tells a similar tale. “Our communication with Apple is very concise,” he says. “We don’t get a lot of candid backroom conversations.” Of course, Apple’s chilly relationship with Greenpeace is hardly surprising. Given the group’s “How Green Is My Apple” campaign, Harrell concedes “it’s not surprising that we’re not exchanging Christmas cards.”

Puckett admits that BAN targeted Apple not because its policies are any worse than its competitors’, but because of its customers. “We saw them as low-hanging fruit that could send a strong market signal,” he says. “Their demographic is highly educated, socially minded consumers.”

If that’s that case, Apple’s green marketing push makes sense. “Apple has been singled out as a bad environmental player, so it has to…free itself from the bad publicity,” says IDC’s Daoud. “The only way to do that is by proving that its products are in fact environmentally friendly.”

“It does seem like, on the design side, Apple has made some great moves that we can all applaud,” says Puckett. “But it wasn’t without the pressure, and it wasn’t without Steve Jobs basically saying we were all crazy.”

Greenpeace, too, applauds Apple’s latest products, but it still sees room for improvement. For example, Harrell says that aluminum manufacturing uses more energy than plastic. And he says that while the 8-hour battery in the new MacBook Pro has its advantages, it’s not easily replaceable or removable and hence not eco-friendly. Greenpeace also wants Apple to participate in its annual Green Products Survey, a yearly assessment of tech gear that delves deeper into environmental specs not supplied on the company’s site. Apple has declined to do participate thus far, according to Harrell.

The greening of Apple will almost certainly continue. Consumers want greener products, and governments are mandating eco-friendly business practices. What remains to be seen is whether Apple’s cloak of secrecy will lift a bit, allowing more outside auditing of the company’s supply chain and recycling efforts. Ultimately, it may be in Apple’s best interests to do so. According to Daoud, “It would be damning to say, ‘We are a green company,’ without providing the proof.

[Jeff Bertolucci is a technology and business writer in Southern California.]

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