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Greenpeace Drizzles on Apple's New Green Ad Campaign

Greenpeace Drizzles on Apple's New Green Ad Campaign

Apple has launched a new campaign touting the environmental virtues of its latest line of notebook computers. Meanwhile, a new Greenpeace report ranks the company's overall environmental policies behind those of rivals like HP and Dell.

By Renay San Miguel MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
11/26/08 12:14 PM PT

The silver Macbook spins slowly in front of an all-white background, as it has in previous Apple television commercials. But this ad's overall spin is different -- instead of talking up digital media, faster processors and more memory, this one mentions toxic chemicals, recyclable aluminum and glass, and energy efficiency.

"The new Macbooks. The world's greenest family of notebooks," says the voiceover in the commercial, which began running in network prime-time slots this week.

Also released this week: the 10th version of Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics. While Apple's new notebooks may indeed be free of toxic brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and PVC vinyl plastics and may use a quarter of the power it takes to illuminate a light bulb, Greenpeace puts Apple behind competitors Dell, HP and Acer when it comes to overall environmental policies.

"While Apple has now positioned itself amongst the leaders in the electronics industry on phasing out toxic substances, to score more points, the complete phase-out of PVC and BFRs in its iPods should be consistent across all other future product ranges," the report states. "Apple also needs to commit to phasing out additional substances with timelines, improve its policy on chemicals and its reporting on chemicals management." The guide also faults Apple for electronic waste management and ranks it an overall score of 4.3 point out of a possible 10.

Apple would not comment on the Greenpeace report, company spokesperson Susan Lundgren told MacNewsWorld, but she did point to the "Apple and the Environment" section of its Web site. It includes environmental performance reports on Apple products. Apple considered the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Reporting Guidelines (G3) when preparing these reports. The Web page also lists the latest information on Apple's recycling efforts and supplier responsibility surveys.

Comparing Apples and Oranges?

Apple and other consumer electronics companies have raised questions about Greenpeace's methodologies regarding its environmental impact report. (This guide focuses mostly on company performance; a product guide will be released in January in conjunction with the annual International Consumer Electronics Show.)

Casey Harrell, who cowrote the 10th Greenpeace Guide, said he is all too aware of those complaints. "If you look at these companies, Apple being one that has thin skin in terms of criticism, any sort of criticism we lay at their feet is not going to be well-received," Harrell told MacNewsWorld. "But we've been able to move them, specifically on PVCs and BFRs, which they're bragging about in their ads. And it's moved the rest of the industry. Toshiba, HP, Dell and Lenovo all lined up after Apple made their announcement."

So what about the concerns over methodology? Why is Apple, with a limited product lineup, compared to Nokia, which makes only cell phones, and Sony, which manufactures a wider range of products? How can a company like Apple, which outsources its manufacturing, be judged next to those which make their products in-house?

"We expect all consumer electronic products to adhere to the same standards, because that's what's needed," Harrell said. "When a customer is trying to decide whether to buy a Nokia phone or an iPhone, they're not going to think, 'You know, Apple doesn't have the same product categories as Nokia.'"

Harrell and his Greenpeace team took points away from Apple for not being forthcoming enough with providing the information his organization needed to compile the report. "(A lack of) transparency is definitely reflected in the rankings. We're looking for an understanding of the issues, adoption of principles and concrete, measurable steps to implement them."

Keeping all that in mind, Harrell said Apple's new ad may contain the core of truth. "These Macbook lines, compared to the rest of the products submitted, would have scored high. Would they have scored the highest? We can't answer that. I can tell you in broad terms that Apple is not full of it when they say these notebooks are greener than others. But the greenest line? Without a base of full cooperation, I can't say yay or nay. But they're not way out in left field."

Apple's Marketing vs. Greenpeace's Reputation

The jury may be out on Apple's product line and company policies, but Harrell did say that Apple has the best green marketing of any consumer electronics company. That's echoed by analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies, who considers himself a Greenpeace supporter.

"I think the crossroads here of these two elements (Apple and Greenpeace) is in the reality distortion zone, but Apple can probably assert its greenness and generally get away with it as opposed to some other companies," Kay told MacNewsWorld. "Certainly, Greenpace is viewed with skepticism by a lot of people. It's sort of seen as a rogue organization. So when it comes to the public image of the two, Apple has a good image and Greenpeace has a mixed one. But in this particular case, I believe Greenpeace. Apple can assert things that may be true in a narrow sense, but in full context it's not quite what it's making it out to be."

HP has a much more aggressive recycling initiative, Kay said, including owning the plants where the recycling is done. However, HP's marketing of that fact is not on Apple's level.

Another question lingers as the holiday shopping season looms: whether or not Greenpeace's grades could effect consumers and Apple's sales in a challenging economy. Does this kind of information truly count with shoppers? "I think it absolutely does," Charles Margulis, director of communications for the Center for Environmental Health, told MacNewsWorld. "I think Apple does think so, or else it wouldn't hype these things aggressively. We hear from consumers all the time: 'Is there a scorecard available?'"


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