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The Greening of Apple: Is It Important To You?

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Apple (s aapl) is putting a lot of emphasis on its “green” initiatives lately. But is it the real deal?

For example, Apple’s new energy efficiency page says that because 53 percent of Apple’s greenhouse gas emissions are a result of the power its products consume, it’s designing these products to be as energy efficient as possible employing three strategies to reduce energy consumption: more efficient power supplies, components that require less power, and power management software. Every new Mac is claimed to meet the strict low-power requirements of the Energy Star specification.

However, the operative questions are how much does “green computing” matter to consumers, and whether corporate marketing of “green” IT devices amounts to more image-spinning than substance.

Only the Bare Minimum?

Some critics, such as MacNewsWorld’s Rob Enderle accuse Apple of doing the “barest minimum necessary” to justify its “green” claims — indeed less than its major competitors, but viewed pragmatically that’s a sensible approach because based on his research into the matter, in Enderle’s view Apple’s customers mostly don’t care. Is that an accurate assessment, or exaggeratedly jaundiced? After all, environmentalist poster boy Al Gore sits on Apple’s board of directors.

Enderle claims that Apple tried to ignore green computing entirely until the eco-activist organization Greenpeace began relentlessly slagging the company as an environmental foot-dragger and laggard.

Addressing Apple’s Environmental Footprint

Apple’s website highlights several key areas in which it’s addressing its environmental footprint, citing engineering innovations such as the unibody MacBooks, whose light, fully recyclable housing is sculpted from a single billet of aluminum, and the lightness of the current iMacs which contain less than 20 pounds of materials.

Apple also claims to be at the industry forefront in eliminating toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), mercury, phthalates, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from its products.

Cupertino has reduced packaging bulk, and, somewhat questionably in my view, bundles fewer peripherals with its systems, which arguably has some minimal environmental benefit, but also saves Apple a fair bit of money while diminishing value to the consumer of what is a premium-priced product.

Diminishing Value for Minimal Environmental Benefit

For example, the new WallStreet PowerBook I bought in 1999 came with video, Ethernet, and modem cables and a decent hard copy manual. To connect the unibody MacBook I bought this year to an external monitor I need one of several varieties of Mini DisplayPort adapters, have to supply my own Ethernet cable, was obliged to buy a USB modem, and documentation amounted to a quick start pamphlet. Environmental sensibilities notwithstanding, I don’t perceive this as progress.

Apple’s claims of cleaning up its environmental footprint act do have substance in terms of operational energy consumption. One reason using laptops has long appealed to me is that because they must be able to operate on battery power, they’re engineered for energy efficiency. However, even Apple’s mass market desktops have very decent energy consumption profiles these days, with iMacs reportedly using about as much energy as a 60-watt lightbulb, and Mac minis substantially less than that.

How Much Does the Average Mac-buyer Care?

But how much does the average Mac-buyer care? I’ve been almost exclusively a laptop user for the past 13 years, but even back when I used desktops, I almost always shut them down if I would be away from the keyboard for a half-hour or more. My observation was that most people were inclined to just leave their computers up and running all day, and even in many instances all night as well.

My inference, not only in the context of personal computers and other IT devices, is that while people like to think of themselves as being “green” and environmentally conscientious, their resolve tends to flag quickly when reducing their personal environmental footprint begins to involve more than minimal inconvenience and/or significantly increased cost, so that for many a commitment to “greenness” is heavier on politically correct rhetoric and feel-good exercises that let one imagine they’re “doing something” virtuous to save the planet with empty symbolic gestures rather than substantive behavior changes, like, say, taking fewer showers or washing clothes less often, or shutting off (or sleeping) their computer when not using it.

A Pew Research study found the average North American’s definition of what constitutes “necessity” these days includes a car (91 percent), washer (90 percent), dryer (83 percent), home air conditioning (83 percent), microwave (68 percent), TV (64 percent), car air conditioning (59 percent), and home computers (51 percent). Substantial minorities also included cell phone (49 percent), dishwasher (35 percent), cable or satellite TV (33 percent), and high-speed Internet (29 percent), and a few even considered a flat screen TV (5 percent) and an iPod (3 percent) “necessities.”

Am I being overly cynical? How much do Apple’s and the other computer-makers’ green efforts impact your buying intentions and user behavior?

26 Responses to “The Greening of Apple: Is It Important To You?”

  1. Charles W. Moore

    Hi Henk Duivendrecht;

    I regret that you thought I sounded cynical. I’ve been an active environmentalist since the ’70s, and I don’t doubt that man-made global warming/climate change is real and a serious threat to human well-being.

    I think that Apple making substantive efforts to use less toxic materials in their products and make them more recyclable is commendable.

    My question was whether it makes much difference to the average Apple customer.

    Charles Moore

    • Skip Intro

      Obviously, Charles, it makes less difference to the average *American* customer, if the comments here can be viewed as a small sample. It’s indicative of how much more needs to be done to undo the decades of brainwashing of the self-centred world-view that US consumers have of themselves. The big worry is that negative climate change will be a reality before those here wake up to the need to do something about it.

  2. I don’t think apple cares about if you like it to be greener or not! It’s about time they do something for the enviroment! ’cause you guys aint doin’ nothing! So that’s why apple creates a brand new enviromentally friendly iMac

  3. I know about all the crazy climate change thing. But I just don’t care. Naturally; I find it hard to believe that any of that has to be used as a marketing feature. I’m skeptical. I wouldn’t look for the “green” aspect of a computer I buy; as long as it’s energy consumption is not that high. I believe that any notebook I buy today would have a fairly less electricity consumption and be green enough.

  4. pk de cville

    “Some critics, such as MacNewsWorld’s Rob Enderle accuse Apple of doing the “barest minimum necessary” to justify its “green” claims…”

    I guess you haven’t heard that Enderle is an email documented Microsoft paid shill. I’ve googled “enderle microsoft shill” above to help you with your reseacrh.

    But he does make for a good link bait opening to this article, doesn’t he?

  5. I’m appalled by the cynicism of both this article and many of the comments. Of course it’s important that big companies like Apple make their mass consumption products less toxic and more sustainable. Even if they do that just because of marketing (which means that the public wants green products) doesn’t make it an evil ploy.

    It’s true that almost every company just slaps some “Green” sticker on their product hoping it will sell more and this may have sparked some of the cynicism of this article, but when a company actually uses less toxic materials, less shipping materials, and whatnot, I really fail to understand why you would criticize that.

  6. chmueller

    I think it IS good that Apple puts effort into that stuff. Every company should. But I would buy Apple products anyway, even if they were “toxic time-bombs”.

    Since I (and most others) do not intend to ever throw away any of my ipod, imac, etc. those are “greener” than products of other companies anyway.

    But it is good for the company if Greenpeace does not keep picking on them for being “not green enough”. That was really annoying (and nothing more).

    And, yes, I am positive that there IS a climate change. There’s no need for a qualification to see that. I remember when I was little we had lots of snow (meters high) and it was very cold in winter and very hot in summer. Now, all seasons are literally the same. No snow, no heat. The birds are mostly gone, too.

    Apple will NOT be able to stop this. Their market-share is just not big enough. But it is nice that they try.

  7. I’ve had the opportunity to work with climate scientists. Those that I know are genuinely on a mission to seek the truth. No determination either way about climate change is going to make a difference in how they get paid (except for those funded by the fossil fuel industries). To make accusations of a hoax and to call people sounding the climate change alarm intellectually lazy is a huge insult. Climate change itself has no political affiliation or profit motive. It’s just happening. It’s accelerating at a rate never seen before. I care about the consequences, and yes that leads me to vote with my dollars for those products that can help reduce my impact.

  8. I terrifies me that people still post ignorant comments with regard to climate change. Unless you have the qualifications to back up what you are saying then I believe we should listen to the scientists and engineers, they are the same people who are unraveling the complexities of the physical world and producing laptops, TVs, space shuttles and any other modern achievement. It is not one individuals contribution that is the problem, it is that contribution multiplied by 6 billion. That is 6000000000 people. Any small contribution multiplied by that number is big. Apple, Dell and HP are all making steps in the right direction, it is companies like that (who yes probably are doing it as a marketing money making ploy) who are listening to the general consumer base who will ultimately lead the way to a cleaner planet.

    Lets face it, even if it is all a “hoax” it can’t be bad thing to reduce our effect on the planet….and high speed internet is considered an essential? Really, where did they do this survey? Last I checked most in the UK didn’t thing the internet full stop was an essential, just a benefit if you could afford it in your home. If not there is the library or community center.

  9. these “environmental Nazis” who who perpetuate the climate change ‘HOAX’ include over 90 per cent of the world’s climate scientists. Just because the oil, coal ,power suppliers say it’s a hoax don’.t make it so. You buy fire insurance even tho you don’ expect a fire—-or did you resist falling for that hoax too?

  10. Howie Isaacks

    It’s great that Apple is focusing on recyclable materials, and finding ways to be more energy efficient, but I refuse to believe that all of this is somehow having an impact on the environment. I don’t make decisions on what products to buy based upon the climate change hoax, and worries about global warming. I buy what is best for me. I’m not interested in the ravings of enviro-nazis who are too intellectually lazy to understand that this climate change crap is on gigantic hoax perpetrated by those who stand to profit from it.

    • “but I refuse to believe that all of this is somehow having an impact on the environment”

      I’m sure shareholders feel different. As you stated goes triple for stock buyers…”I buy what is be$t for me”

  11. As a consumer, the mountains of stats about reduced emissions, environmental footprints, PVCs, arsenic glass, etc, etc are almost too theoretical to appreciate. What *is* easy to appreciate is the improved packaging, and the fact that today’s Macs just use *so much* less plastic than junky Windows PCs (and to be fair, Mac’s from Apple’s recent past). My new iMac is frickin beautiful and the case/chassis are nearly completely recyclable metal and glass. Even the keyboard and mouse are half aluminum. Imagine if PC makers cared as much about designing their products as Apple does.

  12. I agree with most comments above – couldn’t care less. If it helps their bottom line without increasing the price of the computers, and it helps me save money on my electric bill, then great. Other than that, all this ‘green’ crap is just a necessary marketing evil that companies are forced to embrace.

  13. I buy and use Apple computers (MacBook, MacBook Pro & PowerMac G5) IN SPITE OF – not “because of” – all the “green” claims. My natural tendency is run (screaming) from all the brain-washed of the world…

  14. I could care less. However, it’s nice that they’ve reduced the packaging. Are they doing that to be green, or to save themselves millions?

    I think the whole “green” thing is a load of crap anyway.

  15. I care. But not enough to stop me from buying a Mac or other Apple product. Let me put it this way: I think it’s great that Apple is making an effort to be eco-friendly (I even like that the packaging was reduced) and I want them to continue on that road, but it’s not in my top 5 or 10 list of why I buy a Mac (or other Apple product).

  16. I put my computer to sleep whenever I can, but ultimately I don’t care too much about Apple’s “green” push. If it saves me money on electricity, awesome. If not, what’s the difference?

  17. It means less than nothing to me. Businesses are falling over themselves to use the latest Consumer Friendly Buzzword, “green”. It’s all marketing as far as I’m concerned, and it has nothing to do with how well the product works, which ultimately is why I decide to purchase something.