Apple executed a rapid about-face last month when it bowed to public pressure and relisted its products on the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) certification system only days after quietly withdrawing from the standard. In an embarrassing moment for the tech giant, Apple was forced to quickly recant or lose large amounts of business. So what does all of this mean for the average consumer? Should you mothball your Mac?
There was and is speculation on why Apple pulled out of the standards in the first place, and the company is still playing that one close to the vest. John Hinderaker at Powerline speculated that Apple felt safe removing its products from the standards because "going green" isn't quite as trendy as it was three or five years ago. There is some truth to that. Gallup reported that general public concern over key environmental issues is at a 20-year low.
Many have speculated that the withdrawal from the standards system was the product of a simple cost-benefit analysis. Apple has some new products coming down the line, notably the MacBook Pro with Retina Screen, and this would not have made the EPEAT cut. The powers that be within Apple, it is speculated, simply weighed the profits that would be lost from retooling its products to conform with the standards against the profits they would lose from the federal buyers who would be restricted from buying non-EPEAT certified products.
If the cut-and-dried business hypothesis is correct, Apple lost a gamble. The much-publicized decision by San Francisco to prohibit any of their departments or employees from purchasing Apple computers was a bump in the road quickly followed by several universities announcing that they would consider eliminating Apple products from their establishments.
The result of all of this turmoil and concern? Apple re-enlisted its products with EPEAT. The public could put its mind at rest again. But was all of this really necessary? What did the average consumer, or even those public employees and colleges, lose from not having an EPEAT rating on their Macs?
Bob Mansfield, Senior Vice President of Hardware Engineering at Apple, points out in his open letter to Apple customers that Apple’s energy-efficiency was not tangibly affected by pulling out of EPEAT. It turns out that there is a great deal of truth to his claim. This article provided a useful rundown of exactly what EPEAT measures for us non-techie types. It is different from Energy Star, which calculates how much energy a product uses. EPEAT measures life-cycle factors such as recyclability. This article speculates that newer Apple products are harder to repair, take apart, reuse, or safely recycle.
As Mansfield mentions in his letter, Apple still maintained its Enegy Star crediential regardless of EPEAT certification. Additionally, Apple published Environmental Reports for all of its products here.
I checked out the Environmental Report for the iPod Touch (sadly, the only Apple product I currently own). It turns out that I found a list of toxic chemicals contained in the casing, which is a handy piece of information considering my infant nephew likes to bite the screen on occasion. Energy use was also reported.
According to the Environmental Report, the main definitions taken from EPEAT’s ISO14040 and ISO14044 series of standards and applied to Apple products are the greenhouse gas emissions estimations. While this is a widely accepted rubric for measuring global warming and the standard used in the Kyoto Protocol, it has nothing to do with how much power your iPhone charger is using.
Apple's debacle with EPEAT reveals a useful case study in how we see standards and evaluation systems. Having a "certified" sticker to slap on a box can be a useful tool because consumers have neither the time nor the inclination to research the technical specifications of every product. Standards and certifications, however, are only helpful if they give you concrete and understandable information. USDA-approved beef carried a bit more clout in the supermarket than something that claims the nebulous qualification of "organically grown." EPEAT measures how easy it is to recycle something and how many emissions are produced by that process. EPEAT, though a non-profit organization, is backed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which gives a level of importance to the name not carried by other criteria, like the simple hazardous materials listing self-reported by Apple.
The fallout from Apple's rejection of EPEAT had a reactionary tinge. The seemingly-extreme notion of pulling out of any organization with that kind of government backing obscured the fact that EPEAT measures only a very small portion of the environmental impact of an Apple product. An the reliability of that measurement is valuable to you as a consumer only if you accept the importance of greenhouse gasses and global warming.
But that's a story for another day.