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Apple and Greenpeace: A Case of Tough Love?

By Kimberly Hill MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Aug 14, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Personal computer and personal electronics manufacturers are dumping tons of carbon emissions into the air yearly. They're also getting negative press for disposing of returned equipment in toxic waste dumps in developing countries.

Apple and Greenpeace: A Case of Tough Love?

In its most recent "Guide to Greener Electronics," environmental activist organization Greenpeace rated Nintendo at the very bottom of the pack of the largest equipment manufacturers on a range of corporate practices, including the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing and reporting on the company's carbon footprint.

Why, then, is so much ink being spilled over Apple and its green initiatives, or lack thereof? In the past, the organization has slammed the iPhone as well as Mac computers for using environmentally unfriendly materials in the manufacturing process. Does Greenpeace hate Apple?

Just the opposite, says Daniel Kessler, Greenpeace's press officer. "We adore Apple's products," he told MacNewsWorld. "Everyone loves Apple computers."

Tough Love

These might seem contradictory statements for an organization that started the well-known "Green My Apple" campaign -- a Web campaign that won the 2007 Webby Award for the best activist site of the year and has influenced nearly 50,000 consumers to date to send notes directly to Apple CEO Steve Jobs pressing for greener manufacturing and corporate practices.

However, there is no particular ax to grind between Apple and Greenpeace, said Kessler.

Rather, Apple has been singled out precisely due to its beloved status as the darling of the computer world. Mac fans have been known for their zealotry from way back in the pre-Internet days of the 1980s. Its trendy design and popular status in hip fields like graphic design and architecture make it the perfect brand platform from which an organization like Greenpeace can broadcast its message to the personal electronics world as a whole.

"For Apple to go green would be a tremendous symbolic move for the green industry," Kessler stressed.

Jumping on the Green Wagon

Although it's perhaps the most prominent, Greenpeace is not the only environmental organization to take issue with Apple on matters green. The consumer watchdog Center for Environmental Health filed a lawsuit over the hugely popular iPhone very soon after the device's release. The company is violating a California law requiring that any products that can expose consumers to phthalates or other chemicals that are reproductive toxins or carcinogens carry a warning label, the organization claims. The iPhone's headphone cables contain up to 1.5 percent phthalates in their PVC (polyvinyl chloride) coating, according to a Greenpeace report, cited by the Center for Environmental Health.

"Our lawyers are talking to their lawyers," Charles Margulis, the Center's communications director, told MacNewsWorld. "Many other producers of headphone cords have been making them without phthalates," he noted. ""We're just asking [Apple] to do what its competitors are doing.

Painting the Town Green

In the face of waves of criticism, Apple has struck back by doing what it's so well known for doing -- taking hold of its own brand image. In a widely distributed talk given by Steve Jobs -- summarized by Apple on its "Environment" page at the corporate site -- the company outlines its "A Greener Apple" initiative, complete with a snazzy logo featuring -- what else? -- the iconic Apple mark in green.

All PVC and brominated flame retardants will be eliminated from Apple products by the end of this year, the company says. Arsenic in flat-panel displays also will be gone. The new MacBook Air has an entirely aluminum case, as opposed to the plastic-and-aluminum case of the PowerBook or entirely PVC case of the MacBook.

Out-Greening the Competition

Competition, however, remains the driving factor in green initiatives by personal electronic manufacturers, according to Yankee Group senior analyst Josh Martin. "Right now it's a bit of a marketing ploy," Martin told MacNewsWorld. "Companies are seeing the opportunity to use 'green' to capture customers.

How far they can follow up on their green claims is another matter, according to Martin. "We're not going to read about a 3G iPhone made from hemp," he joked. "And although companies are touting innovations in making their devices more green, third-party groups still will say, 'This isn't green at all.'"

Progress, Not Perfection

However, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition that Greenpeace is making to Apple, according to Kessler. That all-aluminum MacBook Air is perhaps the best example of how Apple is in fact making progress toward best practices from an environmental standpoint, he said. He also lauded the manufacture of safer flat-panel displays.

Problems remain, however. Perhaps the highest-profile one is the fact that iPod and iPhone batteries are notoriously difficult or expensive -- or both -- to replace. But Greenpeace also takes issue with Apple's take-back practices on older equipment and its timeline for phasing out additional toxic substances that expose not just consumers but also manufacturing workers to potentially hazardous chemicals.

Greenpeace hasn't done any cross-analysis of the demographics of people who buy Apple products and people sympathetic to environmental causes, said Kessler, although he suspects that the overlap would be significant. "Apple's brand represents things that are new and hip," Kessler asserted. "For them to be more environmentally conscious is a deficit we'd like to see repaired."

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