Earlier this month we witnessed a little scuffle involving Apple that sheds light on perhaps the most important challenge the electronics industry faces: how to balance environmental responsibility with the incessant march of technology. It’s a challenge all electronics OEMs must address.
On July 6, the Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal reported that Apple had made a decision in late June to pull all 39 of its desktops and laptops from inclusion in the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registry, including the new MacBook Pro with the "Retina” screen. EPEAT is an internationally recognized non-profit that rates the “green-ness” of desktops, servers, laptops, and notebook computers. It claims to provide “an easy-to-use resource for purchasers, manufacturers, resellers and others wanting to find and promote environmentally preferable products.”
On July 10, CIO Journal reported that the City of San Francisco was planning to disqualify Apple from the list of companies city agencies could buy from. Other educational institutions and government agencies were making noises along the same lines. Apple’s very public snub of the well-established global standard was roundly criticized by environmentalists. And it was reported to upset Apple consumers, who are typically not known for putting social and environmental concerns ahead of their product purchasing decisions.
Then on July 13, Apple’s Senior VP of Hardware Engineering, Bob Mansfield, penned an open letter to customers reversing the decision, saying it was a “mistake.” Apple relisted all 39 products in the EPEAT directory, including giving itself a gold rating for the MacBook Pro with the Retina screen.
It’s been reported that the new MacBook was the reason Apple removed itself from the EPEAT registry in the first place. The EPEAT standard requires products to include easily replaceable parts and easy disassembly at end of life so they can be recycled. A product teardown conducted by ifixit revealed that the MacBook battery was next to impossible to remove easily. (See steps 21 and 22 in the ifixit review.)
Whether EPEAT allows the MacBook to retain its gold status is the next chapter in this saga that will be determined in the next month, according to EPEAT. The non-profit has launched a "surveillance investigation" (unfortunate choice of words) to “help us better understand and address broad ambiguities or issues with product declarations.”
In other words, there are going to be a lot of closed-door meetings and discussions over the future of EPEAT’s standard and how to evolve it to accommodate the next generation of ultra-sleek products like the new MacBook.
Apple has a vested interest in the evolution of EPEAT. It was a founding member of the organization in 2006 and involved in developing the IEEE 1680.1 standard on which EPEAT’s eco-criteria are based. Mansfield’s letter points to some of the things that EPEAT needs to address. These include the use of environmentally superior materials, energy efficiency, and the measurement (and subsequently reduction) of an individual product’s CO2 footprint.
Apple’s very public flip-flop over whether or not to support the aging EPEAT standard suggests a sincere internal debate the company is having over how to reconcile the evolution of technology with its commitment to environmental stewardship. Thankfully, it sounds as if this little episode has been a cathartic experience. “Our relationship with EPEAT has become stronger as a result of this experience,” wrote Mansfield.
An amicable resolution is a very good thing. But, of course, the ever-present tension between environmental responsibility and the evolution of technology remains. Notebooks and tablets are only going to get thinner and sleeker and harder to disassemble. They are not being designed to be upgradable as desktops were, but they must be designed for efficient end-of-life management.
Indeed, they are becoming more like cellphones, which, by the way, are not even covered by EPEAT. But that’s another issue for another blog.