The New Darling of the Green-Tech Movement
Oct 20, 2009 4:00 AM PT
Until recently, Apple was a little too ripe for the green scale. Environmentalists raised a stink over the company's use of toxic chemicals, its refusal to publicly release its carbon emissions, and its overall sorry showing in industry green rankings.
"Steve Jobs admitted they needed to do more when we pressured them in '06 but he also said he was hurt that we didn't give him credit for what they were doing," Casey Harrell, coordinator of Greenpeace's global electronics campaign, told MacNewsWorld. "Well, it's important we give Apple credit for the data they just released, because it has definitely raised the bar."
"Apple's disclosure of environmental impact is a really good story to tell and the closest to a full narrative that we've ever seen," he added.
Fully Bared and Naked
The most remarkable aspect of Apple's recent environmental impact disclosure was its comprehensive nature. Unlike most companies, Apple calculated and disclosed the environmental impact associated with its products throughout the entire lifecycle, including periods when Apple has no control and no responsibility, such as during subcontracted part manufacturing and assembly, and actual consumer use of the product.
"For Apple to step up and account for indirect aspects too is astonishing and equates to total transparency," said Harrell.
By contrast, most companies want to focus the discussion solely on their products' energy ratings, transportation issues (such as smaller packaging and lighter fuel use) and recycling efforts. Very few want to talk about environmental impact from manufacturing processes, and none outside of Apple have owned up to indirect impact -- such as through the use of contracted manufacturing.
"Most American companies don't actually make anything," explained Harrell. "They contract part manufacturing and assembly [somewhere] in Korea or China or India. They also contract a good part of the supply chain -- and while they all carry that on their financials, none save Apple carries this on their carbon footprint balance sheet."
All Things Are Relative
Interestingly, Greenpeace was quick to praise Apple for its transparency and comprehensive disclosures, but Apple itself didn't want to talk about it. Apple spokesperson Kristin Huguet was quick to provide the URL for the newly disclosed data but was equally quick to say there would be no further comment as "anything and everything is spelled out on the Web site."
Questions regarding measurement accuracy and other fine points in Apple's disclosures are still hanging in the air.
"This info should be verifiable," said Harrell. "I have a call in to them now to ask a few more questions, but you would have to be insane to provide this much granular data and it be fake."
The measurements and accounting Apple released are "well within the range Greenpeace expected Apple to be," he noted.
Much of "green" accounting relies on self-disclosed information. Take the esteemed PriceWaterHouseCoopers Carbon Disclosure Project, for example. It contains green rankings of the Fortune 500 but is based exclusively on self-reporting, resulting in a relative, rather than an absolute, score. This year's average score for all respondents was 53.2 compared with an average score of 81.7 for the top 10 percent in the Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index. In that report, Apple scored 73, HP 86, and Dell 66 -- all above average.
Why Numbers Count
Green ratings do count -- and in more ways than one.
"The 'greening' of an organization is more than a public relations initiative," Matt Arnold, principal of sustainability and climate change practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers told MacnewsWorld. "Instead, companies in a range of industries -- including technology -- are developing thoughtful strategies that produce environmental benefits while also creating competitive business advantages."
Even so, going green isn't a cheap initiative. Like any other business decision, it has to measure up to the overall business need.
"Environmental strategies must be inextricably linked to the business strategy," explained Arnold.
A recession merely fuels that formula.
"The recession impacts our green efforts in a positive way," Tod Arbogast, director of sustainable business at Dell, told MacNewsWorld. "As a result of driving many of our environmental initiatives, we're able to help our bottom line by reducing energy costs while increasing productivity."
For Apple, it's doubly important to have the best numbers in order to hold its cool factor and not embarrass board member Al Gore -- former U.S. vice president, creator of the Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," and a leading figure in the environmental movement.
Most would say Apple has delivered green in earthy spadesful that could possibly bury its competitors.
"We've already taken this to Apple's competitors and said, 'See this? and asked, 'What are YOU doing?" said Harrell. "We definitely play the competitive angle to encourage them to compete for best of class."
For now, it looks as though Apple might just be the teacher's pet.