How green is Apple?

23 April, 2009 by Jeff Bertolucci
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In 2006, Greenpeace launched an all-out public-relations attack on Apple. Its goal: To pressure the company into removing hazardous substances from its Macs, iPods, and other consumer gear. The powerful environmental group even created a mock Apple site where it challenged the company to “use clean ingredients in all of its products,” and to expand its recycling program worldwide.

This wasn’t the first time that green groups had targeted Cupertino. A year earlier, for instance, activists had criticised Apple for its iPod batteries, which they claimed were too hard to replace. Since Apple was charging $US100 for a replacement battery, environmentalists argued, it was essentially encouraging customers to trash their old iPods and just buy new ones.

While Apple’s environmental record at the time really wasn’t much worse—and in some areas was arguably better—than its competitors’, the activists had some valid points. Apple’s MacBook Pro laptops, for instance, then contained brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), toxic chemicals that pose health risks when electronic devices containing them are produced or destroyed. And unlike Dell, Hewlett Packard, Nokia, Sony, and some other competitors, Apple hadn’t provided Greenpeace with a clear timetable for eliminating these substances from its products.

The campaign resulted in a public black eye for Apple, and the company soon realised it needed to fight back. Nine months after Greenpeace’s missive, Apple countered with an open letter from Steve Jobs defending his company’s environmental record. The letter provided specific examples of how Apple was going green, and included a pledge to remove BFRs and PVC from the company’s products by the end of 2008.

Has Apple met those promises? Are its products environmentally friendlier than its competitors’? Has the company reduced its overall environmental footprint? To find out, we examined Apple’s product chain, from materials and manufacturing to distribution and recycling. We also talked to environmental and industry groups. The one thing we couldn’t do: Talk to Apple directly; the company declined to comment for this story. It did, however, direct us to the summaries of its environmental efforts that anyone can read.

[Jeff Bertolucci is a technology and business writer in Southern California.]

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