Weekly Update

Sustainability through the eyes of Apple

It seems that the last six months has brought an increasing focus on Apple’s conscience as everything from its labor practices in Asia to it its sourcing of power for its to data centers to how recyclable its computers are has been scrutinized.

Apple has actually begun to respond to negative publicity surrounding its sustainability practices, first by responding publicly to Greenpeace’s criticism of its power sourcing at its North Carolina data center and the most recent example being its quick reversal of its decision on the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registry. Following some bad PR surrounding Apple’s decision to exit the government certification of green electronics standard, Apple abruptly reversed course, posting a letter on its website Friday from its hardware engineering head Bob Mansfield in which Mansfield described the original decision as a mistake.

While no one knows for certain why Apple originally removed 39 laptops, desktops and monitors from the government’s EPEAT registry of green approved electronics, reasonable speculation surrounds the fact that the battery and the display in the new Macbook Pro with retina display were glued in, making them difficult to recycle. Apple is a design focused company, which is why I found its orignal decision on EPEAT consistent with its culture, which puts great design and usability ahead of every other priority, which is why, for example, we’re still waiting for an LTE iPhone. Apple refused to build a phone that might have subpar performance due to battery issues related to LTE and if gluing the display case into the new Macbook made that laptop a millimeter thinner, the company wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

EPEAT CEO Robert Frisbee commented that Apple told him “their design direction was no longer consistent with EPEAT requirements.” And upon Apple’s return to the fold, Frisbee posted that he looked “forward to Apple’s strong and creative thoughts on ongoing standards development,” and noted that “the outcome must reward new directions for both design and sustainability.” It’s not hard to read between the lines and figure out that Apple wants credit for its avoidance of toxic materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), reporting greenhouse gas emissions for each product, and the overall energy efficiency of its computers while at the same time being offered some leeway to design its products on much of its own terms. Good thing Apple has a significant say in how the future standards will be written.

It’s helpful to contrast Apple’s behavior surrounding the registry with how it has handled the greening of its data centers. Apple decided to build its data center in the North Carolina hub, which has proved so attractive to big IT because of its dirt cheap power which comes from coal and nuclear power.

But pressure has mounted on leading IT companies to source clean power for their data centers and Apple ultimately opted to build two 20 megawatt solar farms complemented with a 4.8 megawatt fuel cell facility.

For starters, greening its data centers with clean power has no impact on the end consumer product or the consumer experience. If anything, a miniscule minority of customers will feel better about using a greener iCloud. But more importantly, Apple’s renewable energy generation may actually make its consumer products perform better.

Not because consumers care or are even aware of the solar farms but because iCloud will become a more stable product. Power outages are on everyone’s mind right now and the last month has seen Amazon go down, impacting Netflix and Pinterest, and salesforce.com had two interruptions of service over just a few weeks period. While it’s clearly very expensive to generate on site renewable power, it does act as an insurance policy against outages and puts data centers in a position of using the grid power as a backup or a compliment rather than being fully dependent.

From Apple’s back and forth with EPEAT to its decision to source clean power for its North Carolina data center, the central thread is that the company will be sustainable as long as it doesn’t impact product development. And if there’s been a small shift in the last year, it’s just that Apple is starting to respond to public criticism, likely a hedge against the extremely small possibility that one day it might have a competitor (Google) with better green credentials (and a product in the same ballpark of quality). For now, the company will put design first and throw in some sustainability, particularly when, as in the case of the North Carolina data center, there are benefits to the consumer.

Question of the week

Will Apple’s sustainability policies ever impact Apple’s revenue?