At Apple's annual shareholder meeting on 10-May-07, the company's environmental efforts played a large role, though one that was undoubtedly reduced in contentiousness by Steve Jobs's open letter, "A Greener Apple," which I analyzed in "Steve Jobs Talks Green" (2007-05-07). In that letter, Jobs laid out what Apple is doing today and plans to do in the future to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing Macs and iPods, and to increase the level of recycling of old equipment.
Shareholder Proposals -- In particular, the letter caused two proposals regarding Apple's manufacturing and recycling efforts to be withdrawn by their presenters, Trillium Asset Management and the As You Sow Foundation, before being voted upon. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Nevertheless, the groups urged Apple to assume a leadership role among other tech companies in recycling old products and removing toxic chemicals from new products." A different take on the same words came from Roughly Drafted, which wrote, "Both groups praised Apple's new public commitments, saying that their immediate concerns had been addressed satisfactorily, and that they hoped to continue progress on future goals with the company." Notice how the first quote implies the groups weren't entirely happy, whereas the second presents a more positive retelling?
"Those comments didn't stop Greenpeace representatives from using the meeting as an opportunity to advertise the group's anti-Apple campaign. Among the activists sent by Greenpeace was Iza Kruszewska, one of the key architects of the corporation's Apple-oriented fundraising program. Kruszewska was wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt styled after the former iPod ads, presenting Apple's products as dangerously toxic and encouraging user donations to Greenpeace to somehow solve that issue. After attempting to take credit for Apple's announcements, Kruszewska questioned Jobs about Apple's potential to do more to advance Greenpeace's political goals in announcing principles, but Jobs insisted that such 'flowery' announcements were not really doing anything for the environment."
In contrast, Macworld wrote, "Two representatives from Greenpeace were present at the meeting and congratulated Jobs and Apple for the company's commitment to the environment." Again, depending on which you read, you come away with a rather different impression.
However, both described Jobs's response to Greenpeace in similar terms - Macworld's "Jobs had strong words" and Roughly Drafted's "Jobs also blasted." And here's where it gets interesting. Macworld quoted Jobs as saying:
"I think your organization particularly depends too much on principle and not enough on fact. You guys rate people based on what people say their plans are in the distant future, not what they are doing today. I think you put way too much weight on these glorified principles and way too little weight on science and engineering. It would be very helpful if your organization hired a few more engineers and actually entered into dialog with companies to find out what they are really doing and not just listen to all the flowery language when in reality most of them aren't doing anything."
In other words, Jobs agrees with my criticism of Greenpeace's scorecard in last week's article, where I complained that the scores aren't based on quantitative measurement, but on public statements. Needless to say, Jobs didn't follow the thought to its logical conclusion, which is that those who are concerned about Apple's environmental efforts have nothing more to go on than Apple's public statements. Macworld reported that Jobs then offered to help Greenpeace and other environmental groups improve their measuring technology such that future scorecards could be based on science, not statements. That's very much along the lines of my call for quantitative rankings, though I'd like to see something that could be independently verified as well.
I also remain struck by the differing language used by the various publications and how that mirrors the problem as a whole - when all we have to go on are words, it's hard to know where on the continuum reality lies.
Enter EPEAT -- After last week's article, reader Jerry Zernicke pointed me to an Ars Technica article mentioning another system to help purchasers evaluate the environmental impact of particular computer models. EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, is a project of the Green Electronics Council, itself part of the International Sustainable Development Foundation. Funding for the three-year development and implementation of EPEAT, which launched in July 2006, came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. According to Scot Case of the Green Electronics Council, the development process included environmental non-profit groups, academics, government officials, professional IT purchasers, manufacturers, computer recyclers, and others.
Although EPEAT seems both more comprehensive and more specific than Greenpeace's Green Electronics Guide, it too relies a good deal on public statements from the companies whose products are being evaluated. Where I think it stands out is in its product verification policy, whereby EPEAT periodically selects particular products to verify that they meet the standards as claimed by their manufacturers. This verification process can include just requesting more information from the manufacturer, or it might involve detailed laboratory analysis or even destructive disassembly.
On the EPEAT scale, there are 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria in 8 categories. To qualify for bronze status, a product must meet all the required criteria. Silver status requires all the required criteria plus at least 50 percent of the optional criteria. And gold status ups that percentage of optional criteria met to 75 percent.
430 systems earned the EPEAT's bronze status, and of those, 374 went on to earn silver, including all of Apple's products. No systems qualify for gold status. In the Integrated Systems category, only three systems merited silver status at all, the 17-inch, 20-inch, and 24-inch iMacs, each with 16 of 28 points. In the Notebooks category, Apple's 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros were also at the top of the list, with 19 of 28 optional points (no mention was made of the MacBook). For Desktops, the Mac Pro garnered 17 points, with only one manufacturer's PC picking up 18 points. Similarly, in the Monitors category, Apple's 20-inch, 23-inch, and 30-inch Cinema Displays were only 1 point away from the top, with 16 points each (a number of NEC monitors received 17 points).
On EPEAT's ratings, then, Apple is doing well in comparison to other manufacturers, though there's still plenty of room to improve. The iMacs may have been alone in the silver, but 16 of 28 points is only 57 percent, just enough to squeak in. In comparison, the Gateway Profile computers also in the Integrated Systems category didn't pick up any optional points at all.
Other Coverage -- My article last week generated a bit more coverage than normal, with the Guardian Unlimited quoting a bit in a piece arguing that people don't care much about how environmentally friendly their computer is. To bolster that point, the article pointed out that Jobs's "Thoughts on Music" open letter generated postings on about 6,200 blogs according to Technorati and 3,300 according to Google Blog Search. In comparison, "A Greener Apple" generated posts on only 860 blogs tracked by Technorati or 450 according to Google Blog Search. (My double-checking of those numbers showed that they had increased only slightly since.)
It's an interesting approach, since it would imply that people feel more strongly about DRM than corporate environmental policies. That may be because DRM is a purely artificial construct that's functionally unnecessary and could be removed in short order throughout the industry if there were sufficient desire, whereas most people recognize that elimination of toxic chemicals and complete recycling of old hardware is a worthy goal, but one that certainly can't be reached quickly through changing the minds of a few executives.
I also had an enjoyable conversation with Shawn King of Your Mac Life on the 09-May-07 show. My 20-minute segment starts about 72 minutes in (mostly easily found by opening the URL in QuickTime Player), after Shawn finishes up talking with Greg Scown of SmileOnMyMac about PageSender - amusingly, they end up discussing several points from my article "PageSender 4.0 Shows Fax Isn't Dead," (2007-05-09) at about 65 minutes. We talked about the Jobs letter, and Shawn, as always, asked great questions and directed the conversation in amusing and insightful ways.
In the end, whether Greenpeace or the Apple shareholders were responsible in any way for Steve Jobs's letter, or if Apple merely decided that now was the time to make environmental responsibility part of the Apple brand, is immaterial. We all need to be able to look past the specifics of the present and focus on the overall goal of making the environmental impact of our electronics as minimal as possible. If we consumers and the industry as a whole don't start paying to maintain a clean environment now, we'll all pay later.
Let's be clear. As with every other environmental push, this isn't about saving the Earth. The planet couldn't care less. Instead, it's about maintaining an environment that's conducive for us, one that we as a species not only can tolerate but actively want to live in. Many people see environmentalism as some sort of altruistic desire to improve quality of life in ways few people would notice, often for unknown people in other parts of the world. But it's more than that - with a longer-term view, environmentalism is both appropriately selfish and necessary for the survival of the human species.