Is Greenpeace Off the Mark on Apple?

The group says Apple isn't ridding its products of nasty chemicals fast enough. But it may be holding the company to different standards

I live in New York City, but I was born in Oregon, and Oregonians are no strangers to environmental controversies. During my college years the state was inflamed by a debate over how to protect the Northern spotted owl, a peculiar little bird with so strong a penchant for nesting in large trees in "old growth" forests that it found itself unable to flourish in younger forests.

Environmentalists rallied around the bird to reduce the amount of logging on federally administered forests, and when the U.S. government decided to add the owl to the list of threatened species, logging in the Northwest slowed way down. Many jobs were lost and small, independent logging outfits shuttered.

Gore Play

Both sides of the debate cast their versions of the matter in apocalyptic terms, each ignoring key facts and injecting lots of needless drama to get their points across. The owl was already under pressure from predators and other owls, and despite habitat protection, its numbers continued to dwindle. Loggers, who argued that scores of thousands of jobs would be lost, ignored the fact that the logging industry in the region had been in decline for decades.

I lived in an area directly affected by the loss of logging jobs, and my father worked for the U.S. Forest Service. My proximity to the spotted owl spat can't help but color my impression of the green controversy now surrounding Apple (AAPL).

Greenpeace is bringing the rhetorical hammer down on Apple for what it considers environmental offenses, namely for not moving fast enough to eliminate nasty chemicals from its products. Its latest headline-grabbing maneuver: pressure on ex-Vice-President and current Apple director Al Gore—he of last year's PowerPoint presentation turned Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Publicly pressuring Gore, the thinking goes, improves the chances that Apple's board will amply consider two eco-friendly shareholder proposals.

Those proposals, as described in a Mar. 21 letter sent to Gore by Greenpeace and 73 other organizations, sound reasonable enough. Sponsored by As You Sow, a shareholder activism group, and Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm, the proposals call on Apple to do two things: one, bolster efforts to help customers recycle old computers and other electronic equipment by adding take-back centers in Apple stores, for instance; and two, study the feasibility of setting a timetable on eliminating polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardant (BFR) from its products (see, 3/12/07, "Hugging The Tree Huggers"). The letter also says all board members, Gore included, are on the record as opposing the proposals.

Somewhat Bizarre

This is just the latest effort by Greenpeace to shame Apple into taking what it considers corrective action on environmental practices. In that same report, marked by a squishy scoring system that rated some things as "partially bad" and others as "partially good" computer maker Dell (DELL) scored much higher, alongside Nokia (NOK), the world's no. 1 wireless handset maker.

Apple makes for a convenient target, given its splashy, event-based marketing efforts, slick TV ads, big profits, and brand cachet among young, affluent consumers who tend to identify themselves with left-leaning causes like environmentalism. And let's face it, Steve Jobs, the vegetarian with a penchant for generous donations to Democratic politicians, doesn't discourage the connection. Apple ads have featured such liberal icons as John Lennon, Cesar Chavez, and Jane Goodall. Grabbing a Democratic greenie like Gore as a director on the heels of his work as a special consultant for Google (GOOG) was a no-brainer.

The Greenpeace strategy, of course, is to imply that Apple, the crunchy California computer company that sprang from the ferment of the post-counterculture San Francisco, is just another corporate polluter. Meanwhile, Dell, the namesake company of meat-eating, Republican-backing Michael Dell, gets props for environmental responsibility? It's a political-cultural Bizarro world.

Same Boat, Different Waves

But there's a problem with Greenpeace's claims. Let's start with the issue of PVC. Apple and Dell still use it in certain parts, notably the plastic insulators on internal cabling. Still, Dell gets more credit on the PVC issue. Why? Because Dell has said it plans to stop using PVC by 2009. This even though, given its volume, Dell is flooding the world with far more PVC than Apple. Dell shipped 39 million PCs in 2006, more than seven times Apple's 5.3 million, according to researcher IDC. Apple, too, has committed to eliminating PVC but hasn't set a definitive date.

Now let's look at BFRs, which are used to laminate printed circuit boards, in part to keep computers from bursting into flames. As with PVC, Dell has promised to eliminate their use by 2009. Again, Apple has promised to do the same, but hasn't set a date. Meanwhile, both are waiting for the computer industry to settle on better alternatives that don't have such negative environmental impacts.

As of now, neither Apple nor Dell—nor Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) for that matter—is selling a single PVC- or BFR-free computer. So in truth, Greenpeace has graded Apple based on statements, not actions. Both Dell and Apple are in the same boat, but one is saying the right things in public, and getting applause for it. What happens, I wonder, if 2009 comes and goes and Dell finds itself backtracking on its commitment? Nothing good, from a public relations standpoint, I suspect.

There is another authority on this issue: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which hosts an online tool called EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. EPEAT uses a set of criteria developed with the IEEE (formerly the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which is a global standards-setting body for electronics manufacturing.

False Drama

EPEAT has established 23 required and 28 optional criteria, addressing such issues as reducing and eliminating toxic materials and building machines whose life can be extended by swapping out old parts for new. Using those metrics, Apple acquits itself well. No single maker earned a "gold" rating, which means the vendor meets all of the first 23 criteria and at least 75% of the additional 28. To qualify for "silver" status, you have to meet the first 23 requirements and at least half of the additional 28. Apple's MacBook Pro came within two points of hitting "gold" status, scoring 19 out of 28 on the optional requirements. Dell's highest score was 15, on its Precision and Latitude notebooks.

And how did Apple and Dell score on the "materials selection" portion of their EPEAT tests? Terribly: Both got zero out of three. The same was true of HP.

So if you're evaluating an Apple purchase versus another computer product based on the haranguing that Apple is receiving from Greenpeace, don't be fooled. Apple's no more or less evil than any other computer manufacturer. And while it's one thing to call attention to a problem that an entire industry needs to address, Greenpeace's methodologies, in this particular case, don't paint an accurate picture.

There's a right way and wrong way to respond to these concerns, and the wrong way would to be cave in to rhetorical bullying by a political action group that's well-known for creating drama where there is none.

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