How green is your Apple?

The creatives’ favourite computer may not be as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside

Last September, Greenpeace launched a campaign against Apple that has proved as controversial as it has been successful in raising awareness of the damage designers’ beloved Macs may do to the environment. The Green My Apple campaign alleges that Apple is lagging behind other computer manufacturers in terms of both the amount of toxic chemicals contained in its products and also in its recycling programme. Greenpeace has created a mini website, which wittily pastiches the design of Apple’s own site. Here it states: “Right now, poison Apples full of chemicals (like toxic flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride) are being sold worldwide. When they’re tossed, they usually end up at the fingertips of children in China, India and other developing-world countries. They dismantle them for parts, and are exposed to a dangerous toxic cocktail that threatens their health and the environment.”

Serious stuff, and uncomfortable reading for fans of Apple, who naturally would expect the clean, progressive design associated with the company to be reflected both on the inside as well as in the exterior aesthetic of its products. However, the case made by Greenpeace is perhaps not as simple as it first appears. In a statement about the campaign, Apple comments: “We disagree with Greenpeace’s rating and the criteria they chose. Apple has a strong environmental track record and has led the industry in restricting and banning toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, as well as many BFRs (brominated flame retardants). We have also completely eliminated CRT monitors, which contain lead, from our product line.” And alongside Apple’s own defence, the blogging fraternity has been quick to criticise Greenpeace’s campaign, accusing the environmentalists of bullying tactics and fear mongering.

So who is right? Apple’s website clearly states that its products are compliant with the European Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS) so they are in no way breaking the law. But, as Greenpeace comments, perhaps we have come to expect more from Apple than for them to simply meet requirements. “We see Apple as leading design – they were the first to go wireless, the first to have flat screens – but we feel that’s been down to technical progress rather than environmental protocols,” says Iza Kruszewska, Toxics Campaigner for Greenpeace International. “We feel that Apple can influence the rest of the industry as they have done in the past; we want them to go beyond legislation.”

In terms of recycling, it seems that Apple’s policy is weaker than other computing brands such as Dell and HP. Michael Dell, chairman of Dell, recently went as far as issuing a challenge to the entire computing industry to adopt free recycling programmes for customers globally. Apple is still some way from achieving this, by only offering free recycling options within Europe and Japan, where it is legally stipulated to do so, and in the US. As the speed of change in terms of Mac technology encourages users to replace their machines every few years, it seems vital that Apple has a worldwide programme that ensures that the old machines are not simply being dumped. Or begins to make systems that can be upgraded without discarding the machinery.

Greenpeace’s campaign has antagonised Apple; while the two companies were in dialogue for three years about potential environmental advances, this stopped when the Green My Apple campaign was launched, and Greenpeace was ejected from last year’s MacExpo in London for being too aggressive with consumers. Greenpeace’s online campaign does contain a sensationalist air, but beneath the rhetoric there is a message for Apple that seems logical and in keeping with its branding to adopt. Whether it’s a stubborn response to the environmentalists’ tactics, or simply the brand’s general air of secrecy, Apple firmly refuses to be goaded into announcing its future environmental strategy, however. Instead, at Steve Jobs’ recent barnstorming keynote speech at MacWorld 2007, where he introduced the world to the iPhone, Apple’s environmental commitments went entirely unmentioned, which seems oddly out of tune with the priorities of other companies at present. Perhaps it is time for this less glitzy aspect of computer design to be given a presence equal to innovative product design and technology in Apple’s future. “They say that they don’t ever declare what they are going to do in the future, they just do it,” comments Kruszewska. “So we say ‘ok, just do it’.”

 

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