Apple’s Green Flip-Flop and the Dilemma Between Product Innovation and Sustainability
Apple’s abrupt withdrawal from an important environmental standard and then its just-as-abrupt reinstatement highlights the power of the sustainability movement. At the same time, it points to the dilemma companies face in trying to harmonize product innovation and manufacturability with environmental concerns.
Apple raised many eyebrows recently when EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), an environmental standards group for consumer electronics, announced that the company was backing out of its program. A June news release from EPEAT merely stated that “Apple has notified EPEAT that it is withdrawing its products from the EPEAT registry and will no longer be submitting its products to EPEAT for environmental rating.”
EPEAT was established in the early 2000s through funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and collaboration among manufacturers, academics, trade groups, environmental organizations, recyclers and government entities.
Criticism over Apple’s apparent “ungreening” started to mushroom in the technology and environmental media, with many industry observers and customers expressing disappointment that such a prominent sustainability advocate would be backtracking from its commitments to green products. For the first couple of weeks, Apple kept relatively mum about its reasons for exiting EPEAT. The company never responded to my request for comment (and, presumably, to thousands of other such requests).
But apparently all the media attention had an effect. On Friday, July 13, Bob Mansfield, Apple’s senior vice president for hardware engineering, released a letter to customers announcing that the company was reversing its decision to remove its products from the EPEAT rating system. “I recognize that this was a mistake,” he admitted in the letter.
In a statement on EPEAT’s website, EPEAT CEO Robert Frisbee expressed his happiness with Apple’s decision to return to the fold. Apple has returned its products to the registry and added a number of new products, as well, according to Frisbee.
Some analysts and commentators believe that Apple originally withdrew from EPEAT after weighing the tradeoffs between crucial design decisions and sustainability measures. Some observers also think that EPEAT’s standards are becoming outdated and that Apple’s withdrawal from the group might be a signal of the company’s desire to get behind a new standards effort.
Satisfying Profit, People or Planet?
As sustainable manufacturing gets more traction, companies increasingly struggle with the challenge of delivering elegant, high-performance products while simultaneously reducing life-cycle environmental effects, eliminating materials and energy waste and keeping harmful substances out of the waste stream.
A close read of Manfield’s and Frisbee’s statements gives some insight into this dilemma and signals that both electronics manufacturers and EPEAT are going to have to do some work to make standards more dynamic and able to respond to constant and rapid innovations that are inherent to consumer electronics design and manufacturing. Companies like Apple are also making rapid progress in reducing environmental impacts, but standards tend to be static and don’t always keep up.
For example, Mansfield’s statement reflects some dissatisfaction with the IEEE 1680.1 standard on which the EPEAT rating system is based. While stressing that IEEE 1680.1 is “an important measuring stick for our industry and its products,” he says Apple thinks the standard “could be a much stronger force for protecting the environment if it were upgraded” to include certain advancements, such as reporting of greenhouse gases (GHGs), removal of certain harmful toxins from products and the federal government’s Energy Star 5.2 standard. Apple already adheres to Energy Star 5.2 and has eliminated brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, Mansfield points out. The company reports GHGs for all of its products.
Frisbee’s statement acknowledges the dilemma that faces innovative companies trying to improve their environmental performance and admits that EPEAT needs to work on its ability to adapt:
An interesting question for EPEAT is how to reward innovations that are not yet envisioned with standards that are fixed at a point in time. Diverse goals, optional points awarded for innovations not yet described and flexibility within specified parameters to make this happen are all on the table in EPEAT stakeholder discussions.
I asked John Visich, management professor at Bryant University, in Smithfield, R.I., what he thinks might have been behind Apple’s waffling on EPEAT. Visich believes that the company’s withdrawal from the standard might have arisen from the company’s difficulty in balancing the three Ps of profit, people and planet. “Apple products are not big sellers in Europe and Asia, where consumers prefer lower-cost products,” he says. “Therefore, Apple needs to lower prices, and the only way for them to do that and maintain profits for research and development is to decrease the cost of manufacturing.”
“Designing sustainability into a product can be looked at as a financial cost in the short run,” Visich says, perhaps causing pressure “to forgo the more long-term aspects of people and planet. Sustainability is more about the planet and people, but you need profit to make it all work.” He adds that consumers might say they want green products, “but ultimately what drives consumer purchasing is functionality and price.”
Under EPEAT, electronics products are rated Bronze, Silver or Gold depending on their level of adherence to the program’s criteria. Key criteria related to products themselves are in the areas of:
- Reduction and elimination of environmentally sensitive materials
- Selection of materials
- Design for end of life and end-of-life management
- Product longevity
- Energy conservation
- Corporate environmental performance and practices
EPEAT also judges service-related criteria, such as take-back policies, recyclability and recycling practices.
Sustainable manufacturing, Visich says, is very difficult in the electronics business because of miniaturization, “which makes it much more difficult to disassemble the product because now everything is jam-packed in the case. While robotics and automated equipment can be used to assemble a high volume of products efficiently,” he tells me, “automated equipment is not used much in the disassembly process. This makes disassembly and value recovery of components very costly.”
These kinds of difficulties in electronics manufacturing lead to tradeoffs between customer-focused design, design for manufacturability and design for sustainability, says Visich:
Customer-focused design means your product has the features the customer is willing to pay for, while design for manufacturability means the product can be assembled in high volumes at low cost. Design for sustainability is the new member of the design tradeoff, where the focus is on value recovery and minimal environmental impact at end of life. Companies concentrate on customer-focused design and design for manufacturability because it is easier for them to quantify the costs. It is much more difficult for a company to quantify the value — to them and society — of the sustainability of their products.