Still under criticism for its treatment of workers in China, Apple has now ticked off environmentalists.
But Apple's environmental performance isn't so easy to judge. Moreover, the same public that criticizes Apple's labor practices and environmental decisions lines up for its innovative products.
So what's a company to do?
It all started in early July when Apple quietly withdrew its products from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registry, the industry standard for green electronics. Apple then reversed itself last week, after loud complaints from consumers and criticism from tech bloggers.
Originally, the company said it pulled out of EPEAT because its design direction no longer jibes with EPEAT requirements. And Apple's own environmental standards are more stringent anyway, it said. The design shift likely refers to the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display not being easy to repair or upgrade. Those are key parts of EPEAT's "Design for End of Life" criteria.
EPEAT is outdated
EPEAT's standards haven't been updated for five years, though an upgrade is in the works. Meanwhile, Apple revises its internal standards and reports on its performance annually.
In a letter on Apple's environmental site, Bob Mansfield, the head of engineering, pointed out (correctly) that Apple's products far surpass the energy-saving requirements of EPEAT as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.
"We make the most energy-efficient computers in the world and our entire product line exceeds the stringent ENERGY STAR 5.2 government standard," he wrote. "No one else in our industry can make that claim. We think the [EPEAT] standard could be a much stronger force for protecting the environment if it were upgraded to include advancements like these." (TechNewsDaily contacted both Apple and EPEAT but has not received a response.)
The EPEAT move may also have been financially motivated. "Apple products are not big sellers in Europe and Asia where consumers prefer lower cost products," John Visich, associate professor at Bryant University and a longtime Apple observer, wrote in an email to TechNewsDaily. "Apple needs to lower its prices to sell there, and the only way for them to do that AND maintain profits for research & development is to decrease the cost of manufacturing, which in some cases could include removing sustainability from the design process."
In addition to fulfilling its own environmental requirements, Apple has to comply with federal Energy Star requirements and with California state regulations governing toxic substances, which will soon be tightened up by the Safer Consumer Products regulations that the state is drafting.
And in order to do business in Europe, it has to follow the European Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS), which has far more stringent requirements around toxic substances than EPEAT does.
Nonetheless, EPEAT is the standard that green-minded U.S. consumers look for. EPEAT is also used by many local, state and federal government agencies, as well as corporations, to make purchasing decisions.
When it heard that Apple was withdrawing from EPEAT, the city of San Francisco announced it would no longer be able to buy the company's products.
After receiving complaints from consumers, Apple rejoined the EPEAT registry. EPEAT's directors admit the need to update their standards, and the experience with Apple has prompted them to consider some new ideas.
"Diverse goals, optional points awarded for innovations not yet described, and flexibility within specified parameters to make this happen are all on the table," EPEAT director Kevin Frisbee wrote in a statement about the Apple ordeal.
When Apple rejoined EPEAT on July 13, it also registered the new Retina Display MacBook with a Gold EPEAT rating. Companies award their own products a bronze, silver and gold rating, and then EPEAT decides if it is legit.
"We seriously doubt that these MacBooks should qualify for EPEAT at any level because we think they flunk two required criteria in the 'Design for End of Life' section of the standard," Barbara Kyle, from the Electronics Take Back Coalition, wrote on the organization's blog.
Green or pretty?
While Apple has come back to EPEAT to appease unhappy customers, the very design changes that prompted it to leave EPEAT in the first place were driven by consumer demand for ever thinner and cheaper laptops.
Ultimately government standards like RoHS and California's Safer Consumer Products regulations may eliminate the need for nongovernmental standards like EPEAT, but for now consumers still seem to care about the standard. Whether they care more about compliance with that standard than about design and price is another matter.
"What Apple's move says to industry and the public is that they are unable to find a balance between people, planet and profit," Visich said. "Consumers talk about wanting greener products, but ultimately what drives consumer purchasing is functionality and price."