Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Green Apple: Challenges at the Core of Sustainable Design

This was a mistake“, wrote Bob Mansfield, Apple’s Vice President of hardware engineering, in an open letter on July 13, 2012. What was a mistake? What has happened? Just a week before that Apple announced that it has withdrawn all Mac products from the EPEAT certification and that it will no longer submit items for review.

EPEAT stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, which addresses all stages of the life cycle from cradle to grave of electronics:
  • Reduction/elimination of environmentally sensitive materials
  • Material selection
  • Design for end of life
  • Product longevity/life extension
  • Energy conservation
  • End-of-life management
  • Packaging, and
  • Corporate performance.
For an entertaining and yet informative introduction to the entire life cycle and the environmental impacts see the “Story of Electronics” by Annie Leonard. EPEAT was developed in an open innovation process, involving designers, manufacturers, and purchasers of electronic products as well as governmental organisations and non governmental organisations (with Apple Computers being one of the participants along with the California Integrated Waste Management Board, Dell Computers, Electronic Industries Alliance, Hewlett Packard, State of Massachusetts, Tufts University, U.S. EPA, U.S. Government, United Recycling Industries, Waste Management, and Zero Waste Alliance). The EPEAT system rates electronic products against the eight environmental performance criteria listed above. Since electronics experience high rates of change in components and sourcing from product launch through to the end of their commercial lives, (pre-) certification based on a one-time investigation is not considered adequate. Instead EPEAT requires manufacturers to commit to providing accurate information throughout their product’s lifecycle and to remedying any inaccuracies discovered during the verification process. In this respect EPEAT is a self-declaration system. It enables manufacturers to participate in an easy-to-use and global registry that allows them to demonstrate their commitment to greener design (in a way that does not delay time to market). It also provides purchasers with a platform that allows them to find electronic products that reduce environmental impact and energy costs (in comparison to competition). Thus, EPEAT tries to reduce information asymmetries between producers and users, and to create (some) transparency regarding environmental criteria in the global market for electronics.

To cut a long story short: Apple has helped in developing the environmental standards and setting up the non-profit organization to run the scheme since 2003 and then it announced its withdrawal in July 2012. The likely reason behind this change of heart is Apple’s current MacBook Pro with a Retina display, which does not adhere to EPEAT recyclability and repair standards. The new display is bonded to the outer casing, which makes it thinner, but which also reduces the ability of the display to be recycled. Moreover, the glued-in and sealed battery is harder to replace. The example shows the difficulties of sustainable design. Sometimes customer and environmental criteria may go hand in hand (e.g. energy-efficiency of electronics during the usage stage). However, in this case the customer’s desire for thin and slim laptops seems to be in conflict with environmental criteria like recyclability and repair. 

Why did Apple withdraw from its withdrawal within a week? In this respect Bob Mansfield says:
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. 
Customers wrote emails to Apple, discussed it in online communities, and made public announcements. The city of San Francisco, for example, was the first one to halt Mac purchases, and the US government also mulled dropping Apple computers in the wake of EPEAT issues. Thus, with the prospect of losing customers Apple decided to rejoin the EPEAT program …

The case of Apple shows that sustainable design (like sustainability marketing) is not an easy proposition and a one way-street. There are potential complementarities and conflicts between what customers want and environmental criteria. However, once an environmental system is in place and accepted by most market players, it is difficult to fall behind the taken-for-granted design and product standards - even for leading companies like Apple.


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