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Steve Jobs Talks Green

Steve Jobs has done it again, posting an open letter on the Apple Web site. The previous “Thoughts on Music” letter generated much discussion and coverage of Apple (see “Steve Jobs Blasts DRM,” 2007-02-12), and foreshadowed the Apple/EMI deal to drop DRM that followed shortly afterwards (which we covered in “Apple and EMI Offer DRM-Free Music via iTunes,” 2007-04-02).

In “A Greener Apple,” Jobs turns his attention to the criticism that Apple has received from environmental groups – most notably Greenpeace – regarding Apple’s manufacturing and recycling practices. In it, he runs down what Apple is doing to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals from the manufacturing process and then explains Apple’s recycling programs. In a departure from the norm, he also discusses Apple’s goals for the future with regard to further reductions in toxic manufacturing chemicals and increased recycling efforts.

Greenpeace’s Green Electronics Guide and accompanying Green My Apple campaign have garnered a great deal of media attention, and the organization’s sometimes-confrontational tactics at Macintosh conferences has been a source of, well, more media coverage. Although Greenpeace may have other data, my impression from talking with Mac users is that Greenpeace’s tactics have generally worked more to polarize than to persuade, with diehard environmental activists becoming all the more vocal about Apple’s ills and longtime Mac users
rising to defend
the company (as they’ve become accustomed to doing in response to criticism from PC users for so many years).

Adding confusion to the situation is the fact that neither Greenpeace nor Apple is necessarily motivated by the most noble of principles, despite what both say. And oddly, much of Greenpeace’s complaint and Apple’s response revolve not so much around what is being done in the here and now, but what will or should be done. Put another way, it’s largely a war of words, of plans, and of policies.

Orthogonal Motivations — An entirely rational outside observer might say that Greenpeace is acting in line with traditional environmental principles in its attempts to reduce toxic chemical usage and encourage increased recycling. I don’t think anyone questions that Greenpeace does have that as the overall goal. But it also feels as though Greenpeace is targeting Apple not because Apple is necessarily worse than other, much larger companies, but because anything surrounding Apple generates media attention and controversy, and that attention is good for Greenpeace’s ultimate goal. Therein, I think, lies the reason why many Mac users have reacted so defensively to Greenpeace’s attacks; it seems as though
Greenpeace is specifically targeting Apple for other-than-stated reasons.

Apple isn’t entirely free of culpability here either. As much as Apple fans sometimes lose track of this fact, Apple is a public company, and a big one at that. Above all else, Apple’s loyalties lie with serving its shareholders by improving the bottom line. There’s no question that many of the individuals who make up the company believe strongly in the goals of the environmental movement, but Apple as a company will always put the health of the company before the health of the environment.

That doesn’t mean that Apple as a company gives no thought to the environmental impact of its actions, nor does it mean that Apple will always take the cheapest approach, regardless of impact. That’s because Apple, much more so than companies like HP or Dell, lives and dies by its public image. Buying an iPod, and even a Mac these days, is considered cool, and any tarnish on Apple’s highly polished brand could drastically hurt the company’s fortunes. Thus, Apple must play a balancing act between trying to produce goods as cheaply as possible to bolster the bottom line and spending more to protect the environment and the company’s reputation.

He Said/She Said — When you read Greenpeace’s rating of Apple, the latest version of which predates Jobs’s letter, the most striking aspect is how many of the scores are based not on any quantitative measurement, much less on one that would be verifiable by an independent auditor, but on what the company has said it will do. Greenpeace was concerned that Apple hadn’t previously given a timeline for the elimination of brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, that Apple’s published definition of the Precautionary Principle didn’t meet Greenpeace’s standards, that Apple hasn’t described its approach to “Individual Producer Responsibility” sufficiently explicitly, and so on.

What I find troubling about this approach is that, speaking as a writer, words are cheap. A company can say anything it wants. Realistically, how many people will notice if, several years down the road, those promises don’t come to pass? Heck, we (at least the cynical or realistic among us) assume that many promises made by politicians during their campaigns will never be fulfilled. Greenpeace itself might notice, assuming this thrust to reduce pollution from the electronics industry continues for the next few years. To continue down the cynical track, a clever company could essentially play with its public statements to spin the situation in its favor. Or, worse, the company could simply lie, saying it was meeting certain standards
without actually doing so. In today’s Internet, keeping that lie going might be harder than in the past, but there are certainly plenty of instances of companies sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug.

I am by no means accusing Apple of having done this in the past, nor am I suspecting that Apple will do so in the future. In general, I tend to believe that Apple is a pretty good corporate citizen, despite the company’s now-famous level of secrecy. But such corporate slipperiness has happened before at other companies and certainly could happen again, and I worry that even Greenpeace’s well-meaning scorecard could be subverted in this way. Perhaps the situation is simply too complicated, but I’d prefer to see an approach that would provide quantitative rankings that could be objectively and independently verified.

In the meantime, though, I’m pleased to see Apple deviating from tradition and being more forthcoming about the company’s current reality and future plans regarding manufacturing and recycling practices. Particularly interesting will be Greenpeace’s next scorecard. Apple is currently dead last, with only 2.7 points out of 10, although the main page for the Green My Apple campaign now features an interactive Flash animation that, when you mouse over the appropriate spot, claims a “preliminary calculation” of 5 points. (The fact that a public letter on a Web site could change a company’s environmental ranking in a significant way supports my claim that it’s all about rhetoric.) The main criticism Greenpeace has made in the wake of Jobs’s letter is that Apple’s recycling program operates only in the United States. However, Jobs claims that it operates in countries that account for more than 82 percent of all Macs and iPods sold.

Let me leave you with what I felt were the two most interesting details in Jobs’s letter. First, for the Apple product watchers, he said that Apple plans to introduce the first Macs with LED-backlit displays in 2007, and the speculation is already rampant as to which product will include such a display first. From the usability standpoint, of course, it’s mostly a detail; I don’t care much about how my LCD screen is backlit, just that it is, although if switching to LED-based backlighting results in reduced power consumption and increased battery life on laptops, I’m all for it. Second, while the entire letter is a textbook exercise in controlling the PR message, there’s an unusual sentence at the end, something you won’t often hear
from Apple: “We apologize for leaving you in the dark for this long.”

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