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 and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

5 responses

  1. As one of the biggest consumer goods manufactures on the planet this sends a very real message to all others in this  sector ,that if you want to be the biggest and make the most profit ,money rules the arguement every time. The environment is a poor second always.

  2. What a very sad day for the Apple brand – not only bad for the environment, but bad for the brand at a time when every product is moving towards transparency and higher standards. I bought five Macs and the bragging rights that went with them.  The adage of “Once you go Mac you don’t go back” is now in question. What a stupid management decision. 

  3. I just hope more people start to snap out of the brain fog that comes with being within a cult. Apple fans are considered a cult by many of us that haven’t drank the purple kool-aid.

    The best part will be if Apple shapes up and makes a positive difference.

  4. What a horrible business decision! There is no way I’m buying a computer that has to be replaced when the battery goes bad. Back in the ’90s our local school was using Macs and trained my child on one, so when I started into computers, I bought Macs. i continued entirely with Macs for the past 20 years or so, only buying one PC when Quickbooks stopped making software for Macs. I HATED that PC, and never used it for anything whatsoever but the bookkeeping program. I’ve purchased multiple desktops, laptops and Ipods, and the only cell phone I’ve ever owned is an Iphone. NEVER AGAIN. With their change to ‘disposable’ computers, I’ll NEVER own another new Mac again. I bet Steve Jobs is spinning in his grave over this decision. It really makes them look like greedy b@st@rds.

  5. Perhaps the Apple board members need to be fused with their computers. At least then they become disposable (ie., non-recyclable) when their batteries die.
    If it was merely a design feature, it would be of benefit to the consumer, especially as a design team as skilled as Apples’ would have found an easier, and more cost effective construction technique. I can think of at least three!
    No, not a design feature as a strategically designed point of failure and replacement. Unfortunately no one will knowingly buy a laptop that costs as much as a second car, if if a second hand car will outlive the laptop. Perhaps the new strategy will lead to an 80% fall in the price of Apple laptops— yeah right!
    It is a real pity that Apple is trying to go for an appliance model of retail, but utterly missing the point that most countries have strick rules about recycling, and strong tax disincentives against non-recyclable purchases. Apple can kiss goodbye to European sales, and with the USA economy, and government tanking, I guess the target market is China, and Apple views China purely as a cash cow and cheap labor on top of a recycling mountain, so removing recycling makes sense if China is your market of choice – apple certainly doesn’t want The Chinese to cut out Apple when it comes to selling spare parts that increase the lifespan of the product.

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