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Apple's EPEAT Flip Floppery: Maybe Genius, More Likely Just Dumb

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jul 19, 2012 5:00 AM PT

When Apple yanked all 39 of its Macs from EPEAT certification, was the company simply basking in the power, glory and pride of being the number one consumer electronics producer in the history of our known universe? Or was it up to something far more devious? Or worse yet, was Apple just being dumb?

Apple's EPEAT Flip Floppery: Maybe Genius, More Likely Just Dumb

Unfortunately, Apple's super-fast backtracking on the issue seems to be point more toward dumb than genius.

Taking a step back, here are the basics: Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) certification means that electronic hardware is basically environmentally friendly. A handful of tuned-in consumers make purchases based on EPEAT certifications, while some government bodies either require that electronics purchased meet EPEAT guidelines or at least push for most purchases to meet EPEAT guidelines.

For instance, after hearing the Apple EPEAT withdrawal news, the city of San Francisco almost immediately banned its city employees from buying Macs for city work purposes with city funds.

EPEAT Controversial or Not?

Until recently, EPEAT didn't seem to be all that controversial, kind of like how a bottled water company that reduces the size of its caps to save on plastic isn't particularly controversial. It's just green in a way that lacks the power of a serious punch. I don't know about you, but the Macs in my household last years and years. I've got an old PowerBook that could theoretically be recycled, but I'm loathe to get rid of it because it still works. So it sits in a drawer instead, far far away from any landfill.

Back to Apple, though. Why ditch EPEAT? At first glance, it seemed as if Apple was taking its ball and going home because it didn't want to create big products with a lot of screws so people could take them apart and recycle them more easily. Or maybe the move was driven out of pride: We are so successful that we don't need you anymore because we're better in other ways. In fact, our way is the right way, and don't bother us with any sort of hoop-jumping. We'll make our magic and sell it however we want.

With Apple's design prowess, making an EPEAT-friendly Mac doesn't seem like it would be too hard. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of hearing about how the aluminum case of the MacBook Pro can be recycled. It's a bunch of freaking hot air designed to keep the greenies off of Apple's back. Like I said, Macs get used for years and years, and I'll bet that far more people waste far more weight in aluminum in other ways than burning up energy to take their old MacBooks to the recycling center. I'm just saying that the brouhaha over the recycling of an old Mac isn't really a great bang for anyone's buck.

On the other hand, removing nasty chemicals from the manufacturing process, as well as making sure that these chemicals don't make it into landfills and into our future water supplies -- that makes a lot more sense. And speaking of other environmental factors, how about Apple's seriously lean supply chain? How about Apple's low carbon footprint per device? Where do these sorts of things come into play?

But maybe this whole EPEAT issue is really about Apple gluing the new MacBook Pro with Retina display together, as well as gluing the SSD drives and memory, so that it's light and thin and has a finite lifespan. After all, if you can't repair it and you can't upgrade it, you'll have to replace it. And if Apple can reduce the buying cycles of its loyal consumers between Mac purchases, that means more Mac sales. Seems like a fairly typical game plan for many corporations that produce products.

Apple's Green Efforts

And yet Apple actively talks up its environmental efforts across its entire company, producing reports about its suppliers as well as its products. The company even seems to be making an effort to use renewable and clean energy sources for its massive new data centers. Where does all this come into play for EPEAT guidelines? Might Apple be doing far more good for the Earth, environmentally, in other ways? Even better than crappy competitive products that do meet EPEAT guidelines but whose manufacturers pillage the Earth in other ways?

So why didn't Apple talk to the folks at the Green Electronics Council tasked with managing EPEAT and push them to change their guidelines in better ways?

Maybe they did. We don't know for sure. But we do know that both EPEAT and Apple have been vague and bland about events. EPEAT's original statement didn't say that Apple blindsided the group, nor did it say why Apple left.

So Is There a Flip-Flop Here?

On the surface, it seems as if Apple made a decision to leave EPEAT, then realized that many governments use EPEAT ratings as a guideline on allowable computer purchases, San Francisco reacted especially quickly. Hence the move to rejoin the EPEAT rating process, which was publicly noted on Apple's environment pages in a letter to customers from Bob Mansfield, Apple senior vice president of hardware engineering.

In that letter, Mansfield notes, "We've recently heard from many loyal Apple customers who were disappointed to learn that we had removed our products from the EPEAT rating system. I recognize that this was a mistake. Starting today, all eligible Apple products are back on EPEAT."

So is Mansfield taking the blame here? Was this decision his? Or was the decision made by an underling? The rest of the letter doesn't say.

I can't imagine that an underling below the level of a senior vice president would make this sort of decision without getting management involved. How can an underling even consider rocking the boat in this way? Truly hard to imagine.

So Mansfield, then. Would he really ditch an environmental rating system -- when Apple has been greenifying everything for years -- without talking it through with other senior managers, including Tim Cook? Seems pretty crazy to me. Possible but doubtful.

More of Apple's senior management had to have been involved and aware.

But What Were They Thinking?

I mean really, piss off environmentalists? Look, you don't want to put an environmentalist in the middle of two passions -- Apple and the environment. Does anyone think Apple can beat out Mother Earth?

Maybe, just maybe, this whole EPEAT thing was part of an incredibly devious plan. Think about it. It's a win-win for Apple. If Apple works slowly behind the scenes to get EPEAT standards fixed to reflect the broader manufacturing and distribution effort that goes into producing a "green" device, Apple spends a lot of time and effort on something that may or may not come to fruition. By going rogue, the company draws a line in the sand and suddenly draws public attention to the issue. The reactive San Francisco screams, throwing fuel on the media fire. Other governments might not be able to buy Apple. Oh the pain!

The Green Electronics Council will be forced to act in some way. If not, Apple doesn't have to worry about EPEAT. That's a win. The media explosion will inevitably draw attention to Apple's measurements on the greenhouse gas emissions from Apple products or the energy efficiency of each MacBook. Truly concerned citizens can wade through Apple's reports on the matter, including the company's FAQ on its Apple and the Environment set of Web pages. For less concerned citizens, a trip to Apple's main environmental page will show off a snazzy green information graphic that will make them feel warm and fuzzy about buying Apple.

By not playing by the rules, this seemed like a plausible move to get faster action on EPEAT guidelines -- or get governments to stop tying their hands to the EPEAT standards, which ultimately could have resulted in a change to regulations or guidelines that would benefit Apple.

Except that's not exactly what happened. Instead of making a masterful and powerful chess move, Apple just made itself look as if it bumbled through the decision. And when it got up, it brushed off the dirt and debris with a letter that says "oops" in a defensive way that reveals nothing.

The whole issue isn't troubling about the environmental impact -- no, Apple continues to make progress on that front, and it will continue to make amazing products that aren't exactly terrible for Earth. What's troubling is the thought process that seems to have gone into it. It's hard for me to imagine this happening, and yet it did. This sort of thinking is about as smart as walking between a mother bear and her cub and then telling the mother bear that this situation is her fault, all the while saying you're not moving because you were there first, and besides, you're on the trail in the woods because you're busy picking up trash, which makes the environment better for her cub.

At least Apple, in this situation, will likely survive the wounds. Scars? Hard to say.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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Which Big Tech CEO that testified at the Congressional Antitrust Hearing on July 29 is the most trustworthy?
Jeff Bezos of Amazon
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook
Sundar Pichai of Google
Tim Cook of Apple
All of them are equally trustworthy to some extent.
None of them are trustworthy whatsoever.
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