Apple Is Greener Than Greenpeace Says

Apple would do better in Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics if the environmental group would weight its scores for company size

I couldn't help but notice the timing. Only a day after the environmental activist group Greenpeace on Nov. 24 released the 10th iteration of its Guide to Greener Electronics, a new ad appeared on U.S. television screens touting Apple's MacBook line of laptops as the "world's greenest family of notebooks." The spot touts the MacBook's recyclable enclosure, low power consumption, and its lack of hazardous materials such as mercury.

Coincidence? Not a chance. Apple and Greenpeace have a history, not all of it pleasant. The computer maker has consistently scored low marks in these Greenpeace guides. This time around, Apple wanted to have a counter-message ready. Good thing.

Apple Outranked by Peers

As has been the case for several years, in the most recent Greenpeace ranking, Apple (AAPL) finished below the rest of its peer group, including Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). In some categories, Apple outscored the other two; in others it fell behind; and the net result was a score of 4.3 out of a possible 10, compared with Dell's 4.7 and HP's 4.5.

As in past years, I take issue with Greenpeace's methodology (, 3/29/07). While I generally agree with Greenpeace's mission to spur the computer and consumer electronics industry to clean up its products and practices, I still think Apple's not getting a fair shake.

Greenpeace takes issue with Apple's use of certain chemicals: brominated fire retardants (BFRs), used to coat printed circuit boards and prevent fires inside a computer, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is used in the plastic coating on cables. Apple has made some strong commitments to eliminate BFRs and PVC in its products, and has stuck to those commitments. In a lengthy statement on Apple's Web site, Chief Executive Steve Jobs says the substances have been eliminated from the iPod and the iPhone, and that the company is "on track" not only to eliminate them from the Mac by the end of the year, but to remove "all forms of bromine and chlorine throughout the entire product, not just PVC and BFRs." This improved Apple's Greenpeace score only slightly.

Preferential Treatment for Dell

Contrast that with Greenpeace's treatment of Dell, which according to Greenpeace has backed away from its commitment to eliminate the substances by 2009. And yet the company's score dipped only slightly. (Dell says: "We were among the first in our industry to set a goal to eliminate BFRs and PVC from our products as acceptable alternatives are identified. For all Dell products developed after June 2006, we've prohibited the use of all BFRs in plastic parts. We're also leading a number of cross-industry groups to help drive viable, environmentally responsible and cost-effective alternatives.…We're committed to eliminating BFRs and PVC as we identify acceptable alternatives.")

Greenpeace seems to have added to its scoring methodology a greater emphasis on carbon emissions than before, so the overall impact of changes, good or bad, to a company's policy on toxic materials is lessened overall. The group applauded Apple when in January it launched the first MacBook Air, which had the lowest presence of PVC and BFRs on the market, but didn't quite eliminate them completely. Had it been free of them, as Greenpeace said in a Jan. 18 press release, Apple would have been "an environmental leader." Now that it's closer than ever before to fully eliminating those chemicals, Greenpeace's scoring system feels like a football field where the location of the goal line keeps changing.

Rewriting the Rules

Well, if the rules of the game can change at Greenpeace's will, then here's a change that should make sense: weighted scoring. Dell and Apple aren't in quite the same league. Dell sold 40 million PCs in 2007 while Apple sold 7 million. Dell sells more PCs in a quarter than Apple sells all year. If Dell were to eliminate PVC and BFRs entirely, its positive impact would be demonstrably larger than Apple's.

Weighted scoring would make reaching a positive score a little harder for larger vendors. At the same time, they would reap greater scoring rewards for positive actions, and be penalized a little more for a negative action. Dell suffered almost no penalty for backing away from its previously stated time line on eliminating toxic materials, while Apple gained little to no benefit from sticking to, and exceeding, its goals. Weighted scoring would fix this discrepancy.

Dell also beats Apple in the "precautionary principle" category, which basically says that companies should err on the side of caution in using chemicals that may be harmful to human health. If it comes to a choice between eliminating a chemical and keeping it, even if the scientific jury is still out on the health consequences, the company should opt to eliminate the chemical. It's a fine idea, and one that most people could reasonably endorse.

But it's not clear why Dell achieves a top score, while Apple doesn't. Apple scores a zero for making no mention of "the precautionary principle" in its environmental statements, while Dell scores three points for employing the phrase. Greenpeace says Apple "seems to be guided by this principle of environmental policy." But simply not using the right words results in a zero score. How maddeningly illogical!

Carbon Emissions and Energy Efficiency

The whole issue of carbon footprint and energy use is also a muddy one. Dell made a lot of noise about energy use in 2007 when it announced plans to be carbon neutral by the end of 2008 (, 9/27/07). And it continues to disclose its overall carbon footprint, which wins it better scores, not only on the Greenpeace report, but also from organizations like Climate Counts and the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Rather than reporting on the net measurement of its emissions, Apple instead chooses to report its carbon footprint on a per-product and a per-employee basis. Apple argues that 95% of its carbon emissions are the result of manufacturing, transportation, use, and recycling over the life cycle of the product, and only 5% from Apple facilities itself. Apple likes to point to reductions in packaging material that allow more products to be shipped at once, thus increasing energy efficiency in the transportation process.

This fact is essentially ignored by Greenpeace. Yet Apple beats Dell handily on the issue of energy-efficient products, exceeding Energy Star 4.0 standards in all product lines while half of Dell's notebooks and two-thirds of its desktop systems meet or exceed Energy Star standards. The net result, given Dell's sales volume, is that Dell's machines are responsible for more carbon reaching the atmosphere than are Apple's, at least while they're in use. Here, too, I think weighted scoring based on net impact would paint a more accurate picture of which company has the greener approach.

Given the public ribbing that Apple has taken from Greenpeace over the years, I think the computer maker is a little resistant to jump through all of the group's ever-evolving hoops. It could probably outscore Dell overall if Greenpeace were to make its methodology more reflective of each company's true impact. That Apple continues to fall short says less about Apple's standing as an environmentally friendly company than it does about the company's willingness to play by all of Greenpeace's occasionally inconsistent and illogical rules. Having made so many changes on the environmental front in the last year alone, from cleaner products to wider disclosure than ever before, Apple is getting very little credit—too little, in my book.

Business Exchange related topics:AppleGreen ComputingGreen EnergyDell

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