This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2010-02-02 at 2:57 p.m.
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Greenpeace Hitching Itself to Apple's Star?

by Doug McLean

A few weeks ago, the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace released its Guide to Greener Electronics, 14th Edition [1], a ranking of 18 consumer electronics companies. The list rates major electronics manufacturers - Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Panasonic, Lenovo, Dell, HP, Sony, Nokia, and others - on environmental goals such as eliminating harmful chemicals in their products, offering recycling programs, and publicly committing themselves to environmentally friendly positions and goals. At first the report seemed like standard Greenpeace fare, but given some time to mull it over, I've begun to think it may not be serving Greenpeace's long-term goals well.

This year, Apple moved up [2] four spots on the Guide to Greener Electronics to claim fifth place. The climb results from a mere 0.2 point increase on its score (up to 5.1 from 4.9), combined with the drop of a few companies like Samsung that failed to meet previously set goals. Greenpeace continues to applaud Apple for the actual removal of PVCs and BFRs from all its products (except for PVC-free power cords in some countries that haven't yet approved them on safety grounds), though it also continues to ding Apple for a lack of public statements and commitments. (Like that's a surprise with Apple!) Apple loses points for failing to provide information regarding its supply chain, providing minimal information on future chemical phase-outs, and for reducing information available on its Web site.

The volatility present in the rankings largely results from Greenpeace's emphasis on rewarding statements, promises, and public positions - as opposed to concentrating on what a company has actually done. This isn't a new critique of Greenpeace's methodology; Steve Jobs himself said much the same thing at a 2007 shareholder meeting (see "Steve Jobs Addresses Greenpeace at Shareholder Meeting" [3], 14 May 2007).

However, a new rankings chart [4] - appearing under the header "Which companies really sell greener electronics" - introduced this year gives new reason to question why Greenpeace ranks companies in the manner it does. In this new list, Apple prominently takes the top spot, earning four gold stars (the maximum) for having eliminated hazardous chemicals in all of its products. Despite winning the blue ribbon on this page, Greenpeace makes it clear elsewhere that Apple is really in the middle of the pack overall.

So why, if eliminating harmful chemicals from manufacturing is only one part of the equation, does only this particular aspect of being green merit its own chart? If Greenpeace is interested in breaking things down a bit, showing which companies do well in specific areas, why isn't there another gold star chart evaluating how energy-efficient a company's products are, or how much renewable energy the company itself uses? It's telling, I think, that Greenpeace has created a ranking that puts the spotlight on Apple, of all the companies in the list.

Perhaps Greenpeace is merely trying to appease Apple press and fans. Greenpeace has taken legitimate heat for not giving Apple's actual elimination of toxic chemicals enough credit, so maybe this chart is a way of recognizing that achievement. But if that were true, it would seem Greenpeace would be conceding its major point that changing manufacturing processes is only part of the overall picture.

Another reason might be even less attractive, related as it is to how one best markets a cause. Apple succeeds in large part due to its public image - the mere mention of Apple can evoke the surrounding culture (youthful, edgy creative types), the people that embody the brand (Steve Jobs or Justin Long), and the products themselves (the iPhone and iPad). The same can't be said of any of the other companies on Greenpeace's list. Just consider the recent fervor regarding the anticipated release of the iPad - you don't see that with nearly any other company in the world.

So what better company for Greenpeace to attach its message to? By scolding Apple, as it has done in the past [5], Greenpeace garnered attention for both its goals and itself as an organization. But slamming Apple can generate press effectively for only so long before everyone tunes out. But by placing Apple atop a list, complete with shiny gold stars, Greenpeace was once again able to attract some attention from the press and public. And this time, in addition to grabbing the spotlight briefly, Greenpeace can also claim that its past actions resulted in this new and improved Apple (not that that's at all likely to be true). In this light, the latest ranking says less about Apple's environmental citizenship than about Greenpeace's maneuvering and manipulation of the media.

Having said all that, it's not as if Greenpeace's goal is a bad one. We all place helping ensure the future of a human-friendly Earth on the list of good causes. But might that cause be better served by rankings based on verifiable actions instead of public puffery and easily changed policies?

Beneath Greenpeace's easy-to-read rankings is - presumably - a lot of research that attempts to determine the impact electronics companies have on the environment and on policy decisions. In the age of the sound bite it's understandable that Greenpeace feels a need to dress this information up to attract readers who will hopefully continue on to read the finer details. I'm not unsympathetic to Greenpeace's need for attention, but I fear the slippery manner in which it has been doing that may damage its long term goals. If Greenpeace's public relations techniques impinge upon its perceived integrity or reliability as a source on green electronics, then the ends won't even have the opportunity to justify the means.

A fierce independence and commitment to envisioning the future has earned Apple its current celebrity. Greenpeace should take note, and allow its own hard work to become the sole spokesman for its cause.