Does Apple Hate the Environment?

No EPEATApple has had a complicated relationship with environmentalists. The company prides itself on its greenness in many ways, having been a leader in eliminating lead, bromides, PVC, and excess packaging from its products and building renewable energy sources for its North Carolina data center. But it has tangled frequently with environmental groups, especially Greenpeace.

Some of Apple’s clashes appear to result from tension between a narrow, regulation-based view of environmentalism and the demands of product innovation. Apple ignited the latest round in a running battle this week by pulling out of EPEAT, a organization dedicated to, as its mission statement says, “a world where the negative environmental and social impacts of electronics are continually reduced and electronic products are designed to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainability.” Not only will Apple not submit new products for EPEAT certification, but it asked to remove 39 already certified products from the EPEAT registry.

Apple, as usual, remains opaque about its motivations and intentions. It is stoic in the face of criticism–a Greenpeace spokesman said Apple “has pitted design against the environment — and chosen design. They’re making a big bet that people don’t care, but recycling is a big issue.” Prodded by The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple (a Tech.pinions contributor), Apple’s Kristen Huguet said: “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. 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.”

Pulling out of EPEAT could cost Apple. The City of San Francisco has a policy that requires it to buy EPEAT certified products and it says it won’t be buying any more Macs from Apple. (EPEAT standards cover laptops and desktops, not phones or tablets.) Federal agencies that wish to buy Macs would have to seek waivers to purchase non-certified products. But it’s worth noting that while enterprises have begon to buy iPads in large numbers, they have not be major Mac customers.

There may be less here than meets the eye. With the newest iPads and MacBook Pros, Apple has moved to more integrated designs. Display electronics are bonded to glass and batteries are bonded to the case. This violates EPEAT standards, which require that that electronic product be easy to disassemble into recyclable components. This doesn’t mean that Apple products can’t be recycled or even necessarily that they are harder to recycle (though they may be.)  All we can say for certain is that the new Apple products fail to meet a set of prescriptive rules that define “sustainability” in a very specific way.

This is a frequent problem with regulation. Regulators, whether government agencies or private alliances of “stakeholders” like EPEAT, love to prescribe solutions. Follow the checklist and you get certification. It’s easy for the regulators, the regulated, and for the compliance-assistance industries that inevitably spring up. But it is hell on innovation. Prescriptive regulations are most easily complied with if you go on doing things the way they have always been done. Regulators, public or private, respond more slowly than markets and often serve to discourage the adoption of new technologies that don’t fit well into the existing regulatory paradigm. Regulations also tend to lag well behind changes in the markets; witness the fact that EPEAT has not yet caught up with smartphones or tablets. (If you want a particularly horrible example of regulatory lag, consider the Federal Communications Commission, which is trying to shoehorn rapidly evolving radio technologies into a regime of spectrum allocation that seems stuck in the mid-20th century.)

Because of Apple’s reticence, I don’t know whether its new products are really less “green” or “sustainable”–whatever, exactly, that means. Perhaps, the difficulty of disassembling them is offset by less use of materials, or elimination of toxics, or other gains. The company, in its magnificent indifference, is losing the PR war by refusing to fight. But we should be very careful not to assume that just because Apple has withdrawn from a voluntary standard that is has decided to rape the environment–or even that it is sacrificing responsbility on the altar of design.