The Greening of Apple: Is It Important To You?

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Apple 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?

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