Apple & the Environment


Apple has faced a bit of criticism over its environmental record of late. In particular, GreenPeace recently launched this website, a parody of Apple’s own website. The parody site proclaims the campaigners’ affection for Apple, along with an ardent desire that the computer company clean up its act, environmentally speaking:

We love Apple. Apple knows more about “clean” design than anybody, right? So why do Macs, iPods, iBooks and the rest of their product range contain hazardous substances that other companies have abandoned? A cutting edge company shouldn’t be cutting lives short by exposing children in China and India to dangerous chemicals. That’s why we Apple fans need to demand a new, cool product: a greener Apple.

The webpage follows up on an earlier GreenPeace report, their Guide to Greener Electronics. That report “…ranks leading mobile and PC manufacturers on their global policies and practice on eliminating harmful chemicals and on taking responsibility for their products once they are discarded by consumers.” It says that, from an environmental point of view, Apple ranks near the bottom of the pack: just ahead of Lenovo, Motorola, and Acer, but well behind companies like Dell, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung. Why does apple score so badly? According to the report,

Apple scores badly on almost all criteria. The company fails to embrace the precautionary principle, withholds its full list of regulated substances and provides no timelines for eliminating toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and no commitment to phasing out all uses of brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Apple performs poorly on product take back and recycling, with the exception of reporting on the amounts of its electronic waste recycled.

Apple, for its part, has the following to say, on its Apple and the Environment page:

Environmental protection is a priority for the conservation of precious natural resources and the continued health of our planet. Apple recognizes its responsibility as a global citizen and is continually striving to reduce the environmental impact of the work we do and the products we create.

So, how do we make sense of this?
Well, one possibility is that GreenPeace’s assessment of Apple is fair & accurate. Even folks who are fans of Apple’s products (and frankly I’m one of them) should acknowledge that it’s at least possible for a company that produces beautiful, efficient technology to do so in a way that’s not as environmentally-friendly as it could be. Naivete about this would be pretty sad, even childish.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t take the rating handed out by an activist group — even a well-established one like GreenPeace — at face value. In particular, we need to look at the criteria GreenPeace uses in arriving at its ranking. In particular, it’s worth noting that according to the GreenPeace report, “Companies are ranked solely on information that is publicly available.” This, of course, is not uncommon among rankings. Companies are not always cooperative, so researchers and activists interested in evaluating & ranking companies often have no choice but to rely on whatever info is available on corporate websites, in Annual Reports, in SEC filings, etc.
But note the particular result this focus on public sources has for the GreenPeace report: some companies get slammed for not (publicly) providing a time-line for phasing out certain chemicals or for failing to mention the Precautionary Principle, while others get credit for using the right definition of the Precautionary Principle (there are several competing definitions, by the way), or for “explicitly supporting” edgy environmental concepts such as “Individual Producer Responsibility.” So, the report shows evidence of little (if any) effort to measure actual environmental performance. Should this critcism of the GreenPeace report reassure us about Apple’s commitment to the environment? Not entirely. The aspirations and promises that appear on a corporate website do matter. Companies that stick their neck out by promising to reduce pollution, committing to changing production methods, etc., deserve credit for saying something that they eventually be held to. It’ll be interesting to see whether GreenPeace’s criticisms spur Apple to stick its own neck out a little more. Which, of course, was the whole point right?

(Thanks to blogger & Apple fan Daniel Eran for pointing out the significance of the “publicly available” bit.) (And thanks to former student Nicole for the story idea.)

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