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How Apple Can Use Its Power

{complink 379|Apple Inc.} has created yet another public policy stir, this time by dropping out of an environmental registry called the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT breaks down electronics products and assigns them a green rating.

Apple hasn't disclosed why it has asked EPEAT to stop rating its products. Apple's move has raised some eyebrows amongst environmental activists and several media outlets are reporting the city of San Francisco will stop purchasing Apple's products because of the move. San Francisco requires products used by city agencies to comply with EPEAT.

Just about anything Apple does — or doesn't do — spurs some form of public outcry. The company's partnership with Foxconn Electronics was criticized after Foxconn's mistreatment of its workers came to light. Foxconn has since raised workers' wages.

Environmental experts suggest Apple is dropping out of EPEAT because its newer products won't pass muster. Oddly enough, the EPEAT news came on the heels of Greenpeace’s assessment that Apple is doing better in its overall environmental practices.

Its possible Apple's products will drop on the EPEAT scale, but I'd suggest another possibility: maybe one standard — say, RoHS — is good enough? The EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) has been in effect in Europe for more than five years and similar measures are being adopted worldwide. Electronics products shipped into the EU must comply with RoHS. There's also a move within the EU that links RoHS compliance to the CE safety standard — a kind of double assurance that the product is OK. Although RoHS currently does not have a stamp or seal similar to the UL or CE, there's talk within regulatory bodies of adopting a “RoHS-compliant” logo that can be used on all products.

I'm not sure how EPEAT standards measure up to RoHS. EPEAT’s criteria are based on the IEEE's 1680 family of environmental assessment standards and within electronics, the IEEE's word is usually good enough. As a consumer, I'm not familiar with EPEAT and I'm not sure I'd buy anything based on EPEAT's word alone.

Apple may think EPEAT is unnecessary. On the other hand, Apple's competitors — including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Samsung, and Sony — participate in EPEAT and the measure clearly is used by San Francisco as a gauge of environmental-friendliness. I don't see a downside to Apple's participation in EPEAT unless its products don't pass muster.

Either way, Apple is once again being held up as an industry leader that should set a good example. Foxconn's move suggests public pressure on Apple can change things for the better. If Apple wants to harness this power, the company could choose a single environmental standard and champion its cause. That would help the industry, the consumer, and of course, Apple.

25 comments on “How Apple Can Use Its Power

  1. bolaji ojo
    July 13, 2012

    Apple changed its tune. Now it's back in EPEAT. The company said it made a mistake. The real mistake Apple made in my opinion is that it thought it was too big to play by someone else's rules. Of course, it isn't and this reversal confirms it. (See: Apple does reversal on green ratings.)

  2. stochastic excursion
    July 13, 2012

    Part of Apple's mistaken perception is that it feels it is ahead of the pack in at least two key green measures.  EPEAT admits it is not equipped to assess compliance on measures that are new or not covered by its standards profiling.  San Francisco civic leaders may want to look behind the one-size-fits-all green measures EPEAT uses, to get more of the facts on their side.

  3. SunitaT
    July 14, 2012

    Apple changed its tune. Now it's back in EPEAT. 

    I think Apple was forced to return to EPEAT because it didnt expect such a harsh reaction from press and environmental activists. Surprising to see Apple make such mistakes, it surely dents companies image.

  4. SunitaT
    July 14, 2012

    Environmental experts suggest Apple is dropping out of EPEAT because its newer products won't pass muster.

    @Barbara, I am not sure if the latest Apple products fail EPEAT standards. For example I read that new Macbook Pro Retina is still EPEAT Gold. 

  5. Cryptoman
    July 14, 2012

    I am not sure whether Apple really thought of the true cost of opting out of EPEAT. For a company like Apple simply being EPEAT compliant would have been a better option rather than causing a stir by opting out. Opting out will raise concerns and question marks on people's minds for sure. If Apple's compliance will cause serious problems for the company and that is the reason for this decision, then Apple will have to face more serious criticisms in the near future. Such moves are golden opportunities for Apple's competitors, which I am sure will be taken advantage of without a doubt.

  6. mike_at_DCA
    July 14, 2012

    Tirlapur, this is not Apple's first mistake in the environmental performance space. If you will recall several years ago Greenpeace gave Apple extremely low marks because they weren't forthcoming about any of their product or corporate environmental performance features or goals. Apple quickly responded and said “oh no, we're much better than that; Just Look!” And Apple's Environment web page was born.

    Another example was in, I think, 2009 when, concurrent with MacWorld in San Francisco they plastered the City with advertisements claiming they had The Greenest Notebook Computers. Well, it turned out they didn't and they were basing the claim on the fact that the products were EPEAT Gold. 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; then they overshot it. Here they've clearly undershot it again. Maybe some day they'll get it right.

    I'm not sure why people think Apple can do no wrong; they're just as fallable as any other human-run institution. Expectations should be moderated appropriately.

  7. SunitaT
    July 14, 2012

    I'm not sure why people think Apple can do no wrong; they're just as fallable as any other human-run institution.

    @Michael, because Apple is the most celebrated brand and people have high expectation from Apple. If Apple which earns very high revenues from its products doesnt care about environment then how can we expect other small to care about environment ?

  8. mike_at_DCA
    July 14, 2012

    If Apple which earns very high revenues from its products doesnt care about environment then how can we expect other small to care about environment ?

    It's clearly up to external forces like NGOs, The Public, and Customers to demand that Apple, as well as all the other manufacturers of products (not just Electronics) we buy “care” about the environment. Given the amount and extent of product-targeted environmental regulation that continues to be foisted upon manufacturers around the world it's quite obvious that this is NOT a natural concern of theirs; in fact, it hasn't been since the dawn of the industrial revolution until quite recently. Go to my website – http://www.designchainassociates.com/wp.html – I've written extensively about this.

    A corporation's primary purpose is to be profitable. Threats to that purpose must be analyzed and, if necessary, addressed. Not meeting customer and market expectations on functional performance or price is clearly detrimental to profit goals: manufacturers have a viceral understanding of that, of course, and focus tightly on it. Increasingly so is product environmental performance, whether it's real or perceived (just like functional performance). Just because EPEAT isn't perfect doesn't mean it's meaningless. Companies make mistakes all the time. Apple's no different. Why would it matter how “celebrated” they are? That's meaningless.

  9. Taimoor Zubar
    July 15, 2012

    It also amazes me as to why is Apple mainly targeted from time to time when it comes to treatment of labor or protection of environment. Yes, Apple may be one of the most profitable electronics company but it isn't the sole one. Neither are other companies fully compliant with ethical laws that they should never come under scrutiny.

  10. Taimoor Zubar
    July 15, 2012

    “For a company like Apple simply being EPEAT compliant would have been a better option rather than causing a stir by opting out. Opting out will raise concerns and question marks on people's minds for sure”

    @Cryptoman: I agree that Apple could have avoided all the negative publicity if it did not choose to opt out of EPEAT. However, there may be genuine reasons as to why Apple did so. May be it does feel that its supply chain is not fully compliant with EPEAT rules and that there may be bigger accusations later on if Apple is still part of EPEAT.

  11. Wale Bakare
    July 15, 2012

    @tirlapur, that's exact of thing expected from Apple. A company that has high ethic work standards. Why cant  it depicts such to other areas people feel should be available and expected of?

  12. bolaji ojo
    July 15, 2012

    Michael, Quite correct. Apple is a “celebrated” company but that shouldn't have a role in critical decisions about the environment. In the end, a company does not operate in a vacuum independent of its society and while Apple's leadership may be expected, it isn't Apple's duty to lead a “movement.” What it has an obligation to do, however, is be socially responsible.

    I think Apple was mistaken in believing it could exit EPEAT without repercussions. It believed the hubris that it doesn't matter as long as it continues to make great products that buyers want. In fact, its profit motive should drive membership in this type of environmental organizations. I recall Pasquale Pistorio, former CEO of chipmaker STMicroelectronics saying the company was “doing business while doing good,” in reference to his commitment to policies that support the environment.

  13. _hm
    July 15, 2012

    Apple must have negotiated some changes in the process of out then in. They will gain from this.

  14. Daniel
    July 16, 2012

    “Environmental experts suggest Apple is dropping out of EPEAT because its newer products won't pass muster”

    Barba, am not getting what's Apples basic intention by dropping EPEAT. They already faced some problems with Foxconn issues. Apple is an international reputed company and they have to adhere with similar environmental and RoHS standards.

  15. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 16, 2012

    In one version of Apple's reversal on EPEAT, it suggests that EPEAT isn't able to adequately measure Apple's efforts:

    From the WSJ:

    In his letter, Mr. Mansfield defended Apple's efforts to make its devices “the most environmentally responsible products in our industry,” and that much of the company's progress isn't yet measured by the Epeat standard. But, he admitted, customers clearly were concerned about the company's continued involvement in the registry.

     That sounds like the old Apple.

  16. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 16, 2012

    There are several errors in the above post that I'd like to clarify, with thanks to our readers that have a deeper expertise in these matters. First, EPEAT is a broader standard than RoHS and in fact requires RoHS compliance even to qualify for consideration. Experts in compliance, such as DCA's Michael Kirschner, question RoHS' effectiveness as an environmental standard. The elimination of the RoHS materials from electronics products have a negligible impact on the environment (this point was made even before RoHS was adopted by the EU). Thanks to Mike's input I agree–if there are going to be standards, the industry should pick the best, not the lowest common denominator.

    On CE and RoHS: The CE logo, as of Jan. 2013, will serve as an indication of RoHS compliance. Any other mark or logo will not qualify and there are no discussions on developing a RoHS-compliance logo. 

    From the above blog, it may appear that I am pro-RoHS and anti-EPEAT. That's not the case. What I am in favor of is a single, comprehensive standard that satisfies the requirements of all regions of the world. I doubt there will be a standard that satisfies industry, government and consumers. There is always self-interest in any type of change or legislation. However, I think an educated industry and electorate can come to some kind of agreement. The key here is educated–something I continue to aspire to.

     A company such as Apple can be a catalyst for change, and kudos to Apple for its reversal on EPEAT.

  17. Ariella
    July 16, 2012

    @Barbara thanks for the clarificiation; ” a single, comprehensive standard that satisfies the requirements of all regions of the world” would be nice to have.

  18. bolaji ojo
    July 16, 2012

    @Barbara, That's debatable about the old Apple. Steve Jobs would probably have declared that the rest of the world didn't know what they were talking about. I don't think the old Apple would have backed down, not unless it would hurt significantly.

  19. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 16, 2012

    Now that I have read the entire letter, it does seem to be a kinder, gentler Apple.

  20. ITempire
    July 17, 2012

    Although Apple should have complied with the EPEAT but overall I think these environmental and regulatory compliances are causing a great deal of overhead and problems for the manufacturers. As far as Apple's power is concerned, I think its sales will not get affected a great deal even in San Fransisco as Apple's products are usually on the 'must have' list and it'l come to consumers through the backdoor channel. Secondly, decent ratings from other agencies will motivate users further to buy the product.

  21. ITempire
    July 17, 2012

    @ Ariella

    I dont think a single comprehensive global standard can be a practical solution. This is because different countries have different definitions of whats an acceptable level and whats not. Manufacturers, therefore, have to consider before investing in a particular region that whether the compliance to its laws can be made at an acceptable cost or not.

  22. Ariella
    July 17, 2012

    @WaquasAltaf I'm sure you're right about it not being feasible in the very near future. Down the road, people may see that they all stand to gain if they cooperate with respect to standards, but that will probably take quite a few years, perhaps even decades.

  23. ITempire
    July 17, 2012

    @ Ariella

    Surely it'l take time being an ideal solution. One of the problem is unionization like EU. EU member countries tend to use these environmental restrictive method to ban imports into their countries and also sometimes manufacturing. While these blocks exist, these protective measures will also be kept as an excuse or rather a weapon to protect their own industries.

  24. bolaji ojo
    July 17, 2012

    WaqasAltaf, When a company becomes a global enterprise, it loses the ability to be too selective in deciding where it should market its products. Certain countries may be out of bounds but often only because of hazardous conditions that cannot be avoided. Regulations typically don't fall into that category.

  25. ITempire
    July 18, 2012

    @ Bolaji

    “Certain countries may be out of bounds but often only because of hazardous conditions that cannot be avoided. Regulations typically don't fall into that category.”

    Yes, I would agree with you and would reconsider my point. Sometimes, regulatory requirements can also be a restrictive factor. For e.g. Company A is not allowed to manufacture product X in a country because product X contains material that are hazardous to the environment and the rectification can only be made at a cost which is unbearable for Company A.

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