Apple’s Withdrawal from EPEAT Indicates a Shift Away from Sustainability

Last May I wrote that one of Apple CSR’s problems is that it hasn’t really adopted the triple bottom line. A couple of weeks ago we got another indication for that when Apple pulled out of EPEAT, a green consumer electronics rating system. This step means that Apple will no longer submit its products for green certification from EPEAT and that it was pulling its currently certified 39 laptops, desktops and monitors from the registry. It might also mean that as of now Apple’s approach to sustainability should be described as the ‘Gordon Gekko strategy’ rather than the ‘Little Dutch Boy Strategy.’

The impetus for Apple’s withdrawal from EPEAT is its new MacBook Pro with Retina display, which does not meet EPEAT disassembly criteria – its glass display is fused with the top of the case, while the battery is glued to the bottom. “If the battery is glued to the case it means you can’t recycle the case and you can’t recycle the battery,” Robert Frisbee, CEO of EPEAT told the CIO Report. Yet, according to Frisbee this is not just about one Mac with some glued parts – “They said their design direction was no longer consistent with the EPEAT requirements.”

So what is EPEAT anyway? It is “a comprehensive environmental rating that helps identify greener computers and other electronic equipment.” It was developed by the Green Electronics Council, with the support of the EPA and in collaboration with stakeholders from the business, advocacy, government and academic arenas. Apple was one of the companies that helped create the EPEAT standards back in 2006 and almost all its desktops, monitors and Macs were EPEAT-certified since then. The list doesn’t include iPhones and iPads, as EPEAT doesn’t certify (yet) smartphones and tablets.

Apple’s dropping EPEAT won’t be without a cost – some organizations and companies require that their laptops and computers will be EPEAT-certified. So as of now, Apple won’t be able to sell Macs to almost all of the federal agencies, dozens of top universities and companies such as Ford, HSBC, and Kaiser Permanente. The first one to indicate the consequences of its step was the City of San Francisco. Officials with the San Francisco Department of Environment told the CIO Report they will inform all 50 of the city’s agencies that “Apple laptops and desktops “will no longer qualify” for purchase with city funds.”

Still, there’s a much greater chance that the benefits from the withdrawal will outweigh the cost. First, it’s worth noting that most of Apple’s revenues come mostly from iPads and iPhones and Macs represent only 7 percent of its sales. Also, most of the Mac sales are to businesses, consumers and educational organizations, so the loss potential is not too high. In addition, Apple has created two main financial benefits: savings in component costs and increased sales from Macs that are less reparable and upgradable.

The second benefit seems to be key here. The clue, explains CIO’s Tom Kaneshige lies in the life of the Mac’s battery. Typically, he explains, you’ll get 250 to 500 charge cycles before a lithium ion battery has outlived its usefulness. A non-replaceable MacBook battery means you will need to buy another computer rather than swap out the battery. “Americans upgrade cell phones every 18 months now,” iFixit’s Kyle Wiens, who called the new Mac the least repairable laptop to date. “If Apple can get us to buy a new computer every 18 months, they’d make a whole lot more money.”

Some observers see it though as a pure design decision. “They are not trying to purposely make it hard to open, they are just trying to pack as much as they can into a small space – it’s a design decision,” Shaw Wu an analyst at Sterne Agee told the CIO Report. I agree with Wu that this is a design decision, but it has far reaching consequences as it represents not just Apple’s approach towards the Mac’s design, but also towards sustainability.

Apple has made a clear decision here to use innovation in order to create more business rather than more sustainable business. The difference is between making easily upgradeable, repairable and recyclable notebooks to ones that you have to replace every year or two that is more difficult to recycle.

Apple sees it differently of course: “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,” Apple representative Kristin Huguet, told The Loop. “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.”

What Huguet says is true to some degree (Apple for example doesn’t report to the CDP or release a sustainability report like many of its competitors do) and it might also be true that EPEAT has its own issues and is far from perfection. Yet, the point is that Apple made a choice to use its incomparable design capabilities to enhance unsustainable consumption. This might be good news for its bottom line, but bad news for everyone else.

[Image credit: Gadgetmac, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as well as the sharing economy, sustainable business models and design thinking. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, resilience and the sharing economy, future of design thinking, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyles.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.