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Apple’s EPEAT Fiasco

Just over a week ago, {complink 379|Apple Inc.} pulled out of EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool certification system. The system gives computers, notebooks, and monitors (and soon imaging equipment and TVs) bronze, silver, or gold ratings based on required and optional criteria. Apple took its registered products off the registry and dropped out of the development of the IEEE-1680.n series of EPEAT standards.

I won't speculate on why Apple walked away in an apparent huff. But others did. Not only did Apple give up EPEAT certification (as expected), but it also gave up customers, which apparently came as a surprise. The City of San Francisco quickly declared that city agencies would no longer be allowed to purchase Apple equipment with city funds.

Perhaps more significantly, EPEAT-listed products must comprise 95 percent of federal government agency purchases in a category covered by an IEEE-1680 standard. Apple gave up any hope of federal purchases of its computers, notebooks, and perhaps iPads. (Slates/tablets cannot meet certain EPEAT requirements as specified today, but that will probably change in the next version of the IEEE-1680.1 computer standard.) Many state and city governments and large organizations list EPEAT as a criterion for computer and notebook purchases. Maybe Apple overlooked this consequence of its action.

The outcry from the blogosphere and fanzines was fierce. But just a week after the turmoil began, it ended with Apple relenting. It came back to EPEAT with its tail between its legs. Bob Mansfield, senior vice president of hardware engineering, signed his name to the company's mea culpa .

This is not the first time Apple has made serious public errors in its approach to the product environmental performance space.

  • In 2006, Greenpeace's Green Electronics Guide gave Apple the lowest marks in the industry, because the company wasn't forthcoming about any of its product or corporate environmental performance features or goals, and it refused to make any visible progress. Apple eventually woke up and said, “Oh, no, we're much better than that. Just look!” Its ratings improved, and Apple's environment Web page was born.
  • In 2009, concurrent with MacWorld in San Francisco, Apple plastered the city and other places with advertisements claiming that it had the greenest notebook computers. Well, it turns out that it didn't. The company was basing the claim on the fact that the products were EPEAT Gold rated. So were many others. In fact, Dell took Apple to task on this false green claim and won — the ads were gone, never to be seen again.

So Apple undershot the mark and then overshot it. With the EPEAT fiasco, it has clearly undershot the mark again. Every three years, it has a public relations disaster related to environmental performance. Maybe it will get it right in 2015.

For some reason, people seem to put Apple on a pedestal and expect greater things of it than they do of other manufacturers. Maybe we see only where the light is shone, but other companies have had their trials and tribulations, as well. How soon we forget that HP became “Hazardous Products” when Greenpeace landed activists on the roof of its building in Palo Alto, Calif., after the company missed the date it had unrealistically set in 2007 to remove brominated flame retardants and PVC from its products by 2009.

Industry is not perfect, and, in Apple's defense, EPEAT and IEEE-1680.1 are also far from perfect. But then, version 1.0 of anything, particularly any standard, is never perfect. Anyone with any experience in the standards space knows how long it takes to really achieve what you're after. It is foolhardy to expect perfection from a manufacturer when our ability to measure perfection is deeply flawed.

However, to run away from EPEAT when we're only moving from the first version of a standard to the first revision of it, and to be unwilling to participate in a process that is in deep need of better science, better goals, better information, and broader industry participation, was clearly foolish. Not just because it was a public relations disaster for Apple, but because it essentially told the industry that it is not going to participate in producing metrics that everyone can compete on and that will allow customers to make — pun not intended — apples-to-apples comparisons regarding environmental performance properties of competing computing products.

Without standards, nobody wins. It becomes a game of words and how much better one company is at the game than another. That's how it is today with environmental performance. Nobody can demonstrate just how far along its products are toward reducing their environmental impact vs. anyone else's.

After the revision of IEEE-1680.1, if Apple gave a sound rationale for pulling out of the EPEAT registry, as well as (one would hope) a vision of a brighter path forward, that would be far more understandable. It might even have an impact. On the other hand, I don't want to see IEEE-1680.1 manipulated to the environment's detriment simply to appease one stakeholder's desires. Every standard development process must be vigilant about this. But neither should we be closed-minded about where we want the standard to go, what can be achieved when, and what really makes a difference in environmental performance and the impact we have on the planet.

7 comments on “Apple’s EPEAT Fiasco

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 16, 2012

    For better or worse, Apple is in the spotlight. I am one of those people that don't look to companies, athletes or politicians for moral guidance, but if you are going to get the scrutiny anyway, use it for the powers of good. “Good” is subjective, as illustrated by the varying efforts at saving the environment. But I agree, exiting EPEAT didn't make sense, particularly when Apple was part of developing and improving the standards in the first place.

  2. mike_at_DCA
    July 16, 2012

    Thank you Barbara, I agree with you. Mansfield's letter implies that Apple's products are far ahead of EPEAT. If that's REALLY the case, and they can show that these areas are significant and actually DO matter to the environment, then they need to step up, participate, and make these areas part of the revision of IEEE-1680.1. If it's a competitive advantage for Apple until the rest of industry catches up, then so be it. If it's not meaningful, then it won't be included. What matters is that the electronics industry get cracking on improving environmental performance metrics – I think we have a long way to go. We should have a Moore's Law for environmental performance!

  3. Cryptoman
    July 17, 2012

    I agree with Barbara: Apple's exit did not make sense. The fact that Apple came back with its tail between its legs is a clear indication that the exit was not a carefully calculated decision at all.

    Apple obviously did not have a clue on the significance of EPEAT in terms of purchasing regulations. They must have realised the city funds consequence of their decision from the “blogosphere” since they could not foresee this prior to their exit!

    The last few years have shown us how the industry giants can fall on their knees, which has been a jaw-dropping experience for many people who could not help asking “How can company X possibly go down?”. Well, I am starting to think the reason for the fall of giants is the gradual accumulation of many seemingly small strategic errors such as Apple's EPEAT boomerang manoeuvre.

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 17, 2012

    Thanks for the input! Michael: good point–if Apple is so far ahead, how about sharing the wealth? Cryptoman–I do believe Apple was aware of the EPEAT significance–they helped develop the guidelines. But their exit was not well planned or well thought out. Apple is many things, but impulsive isn't one of them, so I do wonder if this was an internal snafu or something else is going on.

  5. t.alex
    July 18, 2012

    For companies like Apple, costs should not be a problem. What is the real motive here..

  6. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 18, 2012

    talex: the more I read about it, the more I believe this was just a miscalculation and not a cost related issue. Yes, Apple could have lost a lot of business if San Francisco stopped buying its products, but I don't think that was the motivation. Even less clear is why they exited in the first place. Now that I have done some additional research and listened to our good friend Michael Kirschner, it looks like EPEAT and the IEEE are pretty good standards. If Apple thought there was a better one, we'd love to hear about it!

  7. abusamya
    July 18, 2012

    In Jim Collins seminal book 'How the Mighty Fall' Hubris was one of the reasons put forward for the Fall of Giants. When highly successful companies start believing that they are infallible and that they are beyond making mistakes then the stage is set for an epic fall. This I believe is the dark side of the Steve Jobs legacy. I would hate it to be one of the reasons that destroys one of the greatest companies of our time. Wake up Apple! You live in a world where there are others who may actually be right…and you wrong…

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