Save the World: Don’t Buy Apple

I Love My Mac. I Just Wish it Came in Green.Last month the United Nations announced a public-private initiative called Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP). Industry partners include Dell, Microsoft, Ericsson and Philips. But not Apple.

Last week Greenpeace released its third “Guide to Greener Electronics.” In this report they rank electronics manufacturers on their “policies and practice on eliminating harmful chemicals and on taking responsibility for their products once they are discarded by consumers.” Apple ended up at the bottom of the list. Again.

As many people are well aware, I’m a big fan of Apple and its products. However, I’m more a fan of the world that I live in and the people that coexist there with me.

So, as much as it pains me, due to the company’s pathetic environmental track record and policies, I feel obliged to make this public recommendation: don’t buy Apple’s products.

Apple is a public corporation and if we want them to change, we need to hit them where it hurts: the bottom line. We need to let them know that environmental stewardship must become a part of their economic reality.

Somehow, though, it seems odd that we have to take such drastic action to remind them of this when a celebrity environmental guru, Al Gore, sits on their board of directors.

There are generally two interdependent issues surrounding e-waste and its impacts on the environment and humanity.

First is the question of what materials a computer maker chooses to build into a computer. What’s known as the Precautionary Principle should guide this decision making process: the more dangerous substances a manufacturer builds into their products, the more difficult and dangerous it will be to recycle and dispose of.

Apple, for example, generally ignores the Precautionary Principle. The company continues to manufacture laptops and iPods with highly toxic fire retardents and PVCs that pretty much every other company has stopped using. Furthermore, there are traces of lead in the solder used in some of their components.

After a device’s useful lifetime comes the question of what to do with it.

Greenpeace stresses an approach to a computer’s afterlife called Individual Producer Responsibility, or IPR. This basically means that each producer of waste is directly responsible for dealing with its disposal. In other words, when a computer is no longer useful, the company that manufactured it should take it back in whatever markets they sell, and safely deal with it.

Many manufacturers, including Dell, Lenovo, and Nokia, offer to take back their own products wherever they are sold in the world. Apple, however, offers spotty international coverage and will only accept certain items, mainly iPods.

The point of the Precautionary Principle and the IPR is to get electronics manufacturers to conceive of the total lifecycle of the products they design and manufacture.

If a company is responsible for recycling and disposing of the products they produce, then they will ensure those products can be more efficiently dealt with in as safe a manner as possible.

That’s why Apple gets such a failing grade: they clearly just don’t care. Apple can afford to put toxic substances into their products because the company is not responsible for cleaning that stuff up.

Instead, they seem satisfied to allow their products to be disposed of illegally into third world countries.

Annually, 4 billion tonnes of electronic waste is produced and generally dumped on the world’s poor in places like China, India, and Nigeria. That waste, laced with toxic substances such as mercury and lead, is informally recycled by a labour force that includes children who might make a buck or two a day.

Really, though, why should Apple care about those kids? It’s unlikely they would ever have been in a position to afford an iPod, much less a Mac, anyway.

If Apple won’t care about those kids, I figure we should. Which is why I recommend against buying Apple’s products until the company decides underprivileged third-world kids are just as important as spoiled first-world ones.

Apple’s corporate strategy is all about good design that produces good financial results. If we want them to include environmental stewardship in that strategy, we need to let them know. We can do that by impacting their bottom line.

If you agree, send an email to sjobs@apple.com, or fill out the form on Greenpeace’s web site at greenpeace.org/apple. Make sure you let Apple’s CEO know you’re imposing a personal moratorium on their products until they clean up their act.

So, what does Apple have to do to get my consumer support back?

First, they must quit designing toxic chemicals into their products as of right now. If a company like Dell can do it, Apple certainly can.

Second, Apple needs to institute a standardized, global product take-back policy. Whatever e-waste mess Apple produces, Apple should be prepared to clean up, from whatever global market they do business in.

Third, they need to make a public statement outlining their new e-waste policies, and communicate clearly how consumers can take advantage of their take-back program.

Finally, they need to become leaders in the design of clean computing products. Apple’s been so far behind for so long, they need to jump ahead.

This is a company known for its design ingenuity, it’s time for them to apply their skills to protecting the environment from the dirty side effects of electronics manufacturing and waste.

The manufacture of a single PC requires 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals. If Apple can produce an iPod that weighs less than an ounce, surely they can help drop the amount of fossil fuel required to produce a Mac below 200 kg.

Personally, I was planning on upgrading to a Mac Pro desktop this summer. However, after reading about Apple’s reprehensible e-waste record, my stomach turned and my mind changed. In an age when global warming is so clearly and so directly impacting the lives of so many people in so many regions of the world, I simply can’t, in good conscience, support a company so ignorant.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 13, 2007.

7 thoughts on “Save the World: Don’t Buy Apple

  1. When I read the Geek Love article “Save the World: Don’t Buy Apple” in the Yukon News on Friday, my head dropped. Not because I was dismayed to read about the poor ranking of Apple in Greenpeace’s report “Guide to Greener Electronics.” Rather, I was disappointed to see the depths to which modern ‘news’ media have sunk. Here was yet another regurgitation of a press release, spewed out without any critical thought or independent research.This report was produced by an organization with a spotty track record and an obvious agenda solicit donations through sensationalist headlines. It was flawed in many ways, but the main weakness of this report was that it relied on the public statements made by the companies that were ranked, but did not even consider their actions. The report seemed geared to attack a company that is making a name for itself in the industry with its innovation (Apple) so that the report would have the most impact in the media and therefore increase the visibility of the Greenpeace organization. If one puts in a modest amount of effort, it is possible to find ratings of manufacturers based on actual environmental attributes, rather than fuzzy statements about what they might do in the future.For example, there is an independent organization called the Green Electronics Council (www.GreenElectronicsCouncil.org) who produce a tool called the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). To quote their website: “EPEAT is an environmental procurement tool designed to help institutional purchasers in the public and private sectors evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebook computers and monitors based on their environmental attributes. At the same time it helps manufacturers promote environmentally preferable products. EPEAT is the implementation of the IEEE 1680 Standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer products (including laptop and desktop computers, and monitors).” If fact, in the U.S., federal agencies are required to buy EPEAT registered products.Using this tool, f one were to compare similar laptop computers from what Greenpeace considers the top ranked manufacturer (Levano) and the bottom ranked manufacturer (Apple), one would find that the Levano laptop barely meets the criteria for a silver rating, while the Apple laptop falls just short of qualifying for a gold rating (which no manufacturers have yet attained.) Since you were until recently considering a Mac Pro desktop computer, you might be interested to know that it ranks 3rd of 65 desktop computers, only 1 point behind the leaders. The Levano desktops fall in the middle of the pack, again barely qualifying for a silver rating.So, now that I have done a little of the work that you should have done, I hope you will ensure that you are somewhat more informed before you assault the integrity of any individual or company. To blindly reprint the ravings of a well-documented publicity-seeker is not only lazy, but it is a disservice to your readers, who might consider your opinion to well-informed. I would hope that you will produce a more well balanced report on this subject in the near-future.By the way, if you are truly concerned about the ecological impact of computers, then you may want to consider making do with the computer you have now, rather than consuming more resources and producing more toxic waste by buying a new computer. For the record, I am typing this on a 7-year-old Apple computer, and have no current plans to upgrade it.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Craig.I did review the EPEAT site but decided not to include reference to its current rankings information in my article for one simple reason: it’s not independently verified. As the EPEAT web site states: “In EPEAT manufacturers add their products to the registry … There is no verification of this declaration at the time the product is registered” (http://www.epeat.net/ProductVerification.aspx, ¶1). The rankings database was launched just last July and “the first round of verification was initiated on 6 March 2007 and is now underway. The report on the first round results should be published here in early July 2007” (http://www.epeat.net/ProductVerification.aspx, ¶10).In regards to the Greenpeace report, it is an independent, scientific evaluation that is in its third bi-annual edition. While it may be imperfect, the Greenpeace report has already affected change in companies like Dell and HP, and only Apple continues to hold out on responding to the reports criticisms in any fashion other than outright dismissal.That said, once the first EPEAT verification report is released in a couple of months, it will be interesting to see how it reflects on the self-rankings of the companies currently in the database. Furthermore, it will be interesting to review the comparison between the EPEAT review and Greenpeace’s report.Finally, in regards to the convenient target that Apple makes as a scapegoat to the e-waste issue, it is only natural and sensible to leverage this. I’d draw your attention to the matter of foreign sweatshops that Nike was the target of the bad rap for in the 90s. In the end, despite the fact that just about every manufacturer operated in the same fashion, Nike ended up being a very positive force in cleaning up that social problem after the negative PR wore them down. My hope is that similar action directed at a high-profile company such as Apple in regards to an even more serious issue might have a similar effect. In that light, Greenpeace’s efforts are wise and warranted (and hence, so are mine).

  3. First of all, let me state that I think it is a valuable goal to eliminate harmful chemicals from our electronics, and anywhere else possible for that matter. I also agree that Apple has more to do to achieve that goal, as do all electronics manufacturers. But what I don’t agree with is the use of lies and slander to stir up the pot. If you want to associate a company with a heinous behaviour, with the goal of drawing attention to an issue, then choose a behaviour they are actually guilty of. The report produced by Greenpeace was based on promotional material produced by the companies that were ranked. Essentially, Greenpeace ranked a company higher if it made better promises than another. For example, Dell promises to eliminate PVCs from their computers by 2009. Apple has said nothing. But a promise is just a promise, actions are a more reliable indicator of sincerity. This report is essentially sensationalist propaganda based on fuzzy assurances, and so has no validity.The EPEAT database is based on actions and hard data, so it will be a more reliable gauge of each manufacturers commitment to the environment. Your sole reason for ignoring the EPEAT site is that it is not independently verified, yet the Greenpeace report is based on information that is unverifiable. The EPEAT database will be independently verified in a few months, but we will have to wait for years to see if the manufacturers claims, which the Greenpeace report is based on, are followed through on. You claim you are interested to see the results of the EPEAT verification, but will wait until then to comment, yet you did not wait for the verification of Greenpeace’s claims before commenting on them.To call the Greenpeace report independent or scientific is inaccurate at best, considering the source of its information, and the fact that they have produced three flawed reports does not make them valid. The only changes the previous reports have affected have been for companies, like Dell and HP, to increase the quantity of propaganda they have produced. The real change has been through legislation by the EPA and EU regulators restricting the use of these hazardous chemicals.I want as much as you do for the improved heath and safety of the earth and its inhabitants, but I do not agree that the end justifies the means. We have heard that argument too much in recent history, with terrible results. It is a weak argument made by people too lazy or too impatient to find a better way.

  4. Again, thanks for your comments, Craig. They are very valuable to this issue.The Greepeace report, to an extent, is based on promises for sure. However, I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s “sensationalist propaganda based on fuzzy assurances.” Greenpeace actively reviews the information in the report and meets with the various companies regularly to assess how truthfully the promises are being implemented within the companies’ processes. That’s how they can assess negative point ratings against companies that have lied about previous promises. They’re not taking this information at face value.As to your claim that the EPEAT database is based on “actions and hard data,” I must disagree. There has been absolutely no rigour performed on the EPEAT information to date. It is simply a collection of corporate claims that the companies themselves have entered into the database.Greepeace’s report is not based just on promises, however, as you claim. Lenovo, for example, last year introduced a China-wide electronics takeback campaign as a result of Greepeace’s efforts. That’s a clear example of results.I’d just add one more angle to this story: politics. Greepeace’s politics are never in doubt, and while we might not always agree with them, we can always understand them. The EPEAT, on the other hand, was very quickly blessed by the Bush Administration. To my mind any environmental initiative that gets the nod from George that quickly is politically suspect. When it comes to environmental issues, I’ll side with the wingnut leftist hippies over the manifest-destiny, war-mongering Empire every time.

  5. Which is worse: to make a promise and then break it, or make no promise at all? The reality is that the promise is only worth something when it leads to concrete actions. The Greenpeace report is not science, it is a subjective assessment of the marketing efforts of these companies. If Greenpeace focused on what the companies are actually doing, as opposed to what the companies say they will do, then they would have a more accurate assessment of each company’s environmental record. For example, Levano and Dell are still intentionally adding highly toxic cadmium, lead and hexavalent chromium to their products, while Apple is not. Is it better to promise to eliminate a hazardous material by 2009 or to have already eliminated it?In your article, you made an unsubstantiated inference that Apple was dumping toxic electronic waste in China, where there are few standards in place to regulate the recycling of these products. Yet now you praise Levano for its China-wide take-back, without questioning how they will deal that issue. Will Levano send all those electronics to a 1st world country with excellent standards of waste management? Not likely. Also, the Levano take-back policy only applies to their products, while Apple, who started their voluntary take-back program in 1994, take back any manufacturers computer or monitor when you buy a new Apple computer or monitor. 
Your logic about EPEAT is flawed (Bush is Bad + Bush supports EPEAT = EPEAT is Bad) as even bad people can make good decisions sometimes. But it’s interesting that you would position Greenpeace and the Bush Administration as polar opposites, when the reality is that they both employ the same tactic of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) to justify their existence.

  6. Wow, what a great debate!I think this whole discussion shows just how difficult it is to get real, concrete and believable information, which in turn can lead to “analysis paralysis” and lack of any meaningful action. Let’s hope that just getting the word out there inspires each one of us to do better and to take part in getting the big companies to do better, too.

Comments are closed.