Apple Exits EPEAT

The Facts:

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool registry recently decided that the new Macbook Pro, with its Retina display, is not environmentally friendly. Due to the Retina display and issues with internal heat, the battery is glued to the case. This not only makes it more difficult to replace, but also to recycle. Responding to this move, Apple pulled all of their computers out of the EPEAT registry, garnering much attention.

The city of San Francisco decided to stop purchasing Macintoshes. This ban has little effect on Apple, as at most, 2% of the city’s computers are Macs.

Apple released this statement to The Loop, a blog about Apple:

 “Apple 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,” Apple representative Kristin Huguet, told The Loop. “We also lead the industry by reporting each product’s greenhouse gas emissions on our website, and Apple products are superior in other important environmental areas not measured by EPEAT, such as removal of toxic materials.”

The Investigation:

As a Mac user, yet Apple skeptic, I decided to look into two things: do Apple products stand up to the competition in terms of environmental impact, and are consumers concerned about this?

The Macintosh, in all of its flavors, is a power-efficient computer. The Mac Mini is the most power-efficient desktop computer made. Mac OS X has advanced power management, and even powers down the CPU in between keyboard strokes. That’s efficient. Indeed, when it comes to power consumption, this is where Apple shines. Even my Mac Pro, for what it is (a beast) doesn’t use that much power.

Despite all of the marketing on the Apple site, my own experience with Apple products prove this to be true. I use my iPhone and iPad all the time, and recharge them, at most, twice a week. My Apple TV uses 6 watts of power. Yes, 6 watts. I replaced my cable box with an Apple TV 2 when I ditched cable. Even though I had not turned on my cable box for a week, when I unplugged it and pulled it out of my entertainment system, it was very warm. The next power bill showed I was saving quite a bit of energy simply by getting rid of my cable box. It seems to have used more power on standby than my Apple TV uses when it is actually on.

Macs are more power-efficient than comparable PCs. Apple is correct to boast that the Mac Mini is the most power-efficient desktop computer in the world. Some of this has to do with the hardware. Much of it has to do with the operating system. In a comparison of Mac OS X to Windows 7, writing a 4KB file to disk, OS X is clearly more efficient.

There are other considerations than power consumption. Is the hardware made of green-friendly materials? Can it be recycled? Is the manufacturing process carbon neutral?

Researching this issue, I have found Apple to be a bit guilty of green washing. When compared with other manufacturers, Apple finishes in fourth place in the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics. Fourth place is pretty good, but not the best. Apple fails one measure by not advocating a clean energy policy. They also do not use recycled plastics in their products. They do not have policies and practices in place for using recycled paper and fibers. Nonetheless, fourth place out of 15 is pretty good. Their products are considered environmentally friendly — even more than the leaders on the Greenpeace list. Their practices could use improvement. The Greenpeace Guide notes that Apple is improving. There can often be a tradeoff between cutting edge design and being green friendly. In the case of the Macbook Pro, would you rather have a Retina display or a greener computer? Would recycled plastics give Apple the proper materials to build their cutting edge designs? I would prefer a Retina display to an easier-to-recycle unit, keeping in mind that Apple is somewhat environmentally friendly, and most importantly, they are getting better, not worse. Apple has an innovative recycling program. They even offer the opportunity to obtain a gift card in exchange for recycling your Apple products.

In light of the Greenpeace report, I do think EPEAT was quite harsh in their admonishment of the new Macbook Pro. I also think that Apple threw the baby out with the bath water. They should have just accepted the decision and not drawn this attention onto them. The PR backlash was not worth it. Instead of exiting EPEAT, they could have pointed out that Greenpeace considers them at the top of the list of environmentally friendly electronics manufacturers. The leaders don’t score much higher. Apple could have explained that the design required the battery to be glued in, and that the components are still recyclable. It just takes a little more effort.

Do people really care about the environment to the extent that it shapes their decision-making when purchasing a computer? According to AdWeek, consumers don’t really care about green. Only 26% of Americans actively seek environmentally friendly products. When it comes down to it, if you want a Mac or an iPad, you’re going to get one because of the features, not because it is “greener” than brand X. Once again, this points out the folly of Apple’s PR strategy. They should have just ignored the issue and remained in EPEAT, since most of their other computers were recommended by EPEAT. They could have also mentioned that they are near the top of the Greenpeace Guide. This is the problem with Apple culture. They need to portray an image of being perfect, flawless, and the best. In the case of the EPEAT debacle, this created a PR backlash and the city of San Francisco is not going to buy a few Macs because of this. I expect a few other municipalities and maybe entire European national governments to follow suit. However, I don’t think it will put much of a dent in their revenues. Apple gained nothing by this move. They only garnered negative attention and lost a few sales.

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