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Apple's Change Of Heart On Green Certification

Jul 13, 2012
Originally published on July 13, 2012 10:24 pm

It's not often that one of the world's biggest companies says, "We goofed."

But in a surprising turn of events Friday, Apple admitted it made a mistake in pulling out of an environmental rating system for computers and other electronics. The company said it would rejoin the so-called EPEAT certification system, placing all 39 of its originally certified products back on the list. The company is also requesting certification for more products, including its new MacBook Pro model.

Apple's move comes after the company started to get hammered by customers who were not pleased by the company's initial decision.

Apple Backtracks

For years, Apple has been actively working with EPEAT, a nonprofit that created environmental standards and a rating system for computers and other electronics.

But over the long Fourth of July weekend, when not many people were paying attention, Apple told EPEAT, which stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, that it wanted to opt out of its rating system. Then, Apple removed all of its products from the group's environmentally certified list. All of the products had earned EPEAT's highest rating.

The company was bound to lose some sales from this initial decision. The federal government, cities including San Francisco and some companies have purchasing guidelines that favor EPEAT-certified products. Industry analysts say ultimately, the financial hit to Apple probably wouldn't have been much, but the company's reputation was clearly sullied in this episode.

Unclear Motives

It's still unclear why Apple decided to pull out of EPEAT's registry in the first place. Many observers suggest Apple was concerned that its newest products, including the MacBook Pro with Retina display, would not meet basic EPEAT standards and would not receive the green certification. Others speculate the company simply didn't want to be part of what it viewed as an antiquated product registry — one that didn't reward its environmental innovations.

But whatever the motive, the company heard from lots of customers who were not happy with its decision. A couple of days ago, Apple called EPEAT and talked about rejoining the list. On Friday, the company announced on its website that it had rejoined the certification process.

Within 20 minutes of the news, EPEAT's website, not exactly a household URL, was swamped with online visitors and crashed — an indication of how much attention Apple's decision has received.

Lingering Environmental Concerns

But environmentalists and some industry watchers remain concerned about the design trend in Apple's new products. While concerned consumers may welcome the news of Apple's rejoining EPEAT's registry, there are still unresolved environmental issues about the company's newest products.

According to Kyle Wiens, founder of the online repair site iFixit, Apple is now moving toward thinner and thinner laptops with glued-in batteries, which are difficult to recycle.

"This is like selling a car with tires that are welded to the car so that the only way to swap out the tires is to take it back to the manufacturer," says Wiens, who adds that replacing batteries is part of routine laptop maintenance.

Still, Apple has also made it clear that it wants to play a big role in helping to craft new EPEAT standards. In many respects, Apple has been an environmental leader, and the company wants to make sure it is rewarded, and gets credit for, its own green initiatives.

Developing these standards is a long and complex process involving input from manufacturers, environmentalists, and government officials, but we are likely to see new updated standards in about a year.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In a surprising turnabout, Apple has admitted it made a mistake in pulling out of an environmental rating system for computers and other electronics. The company says it will rejoin the so-called EPEAT certification system.

Apple's change of mind follows an outcry from customers about the decision. Joining me to talk about this is NPR's Wendy Kaufman. And, Wendy, what happened?

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Well, first off, Melissa, we should say that it's not often that the world's biggest company says, in essence, we goofed.

BLOCK: That's true.

KAUFMAN: That's exactly what happened today. I'm going to give you a little bit of history. Over the long 4th of July weekend where not many people were paying attention, Apple told EPEAT that it wanted to opt out of the rating system. Apple removed all its products from the group's environmentally certified list and all of them, by the way, had earned the highest rating.

Now, by removing their products, Apple was bound to lose some sales. The federal government, cities including San Francisco, and some companies have purchasing guidelines that favor EPEAT certified products. The financial hit to Apple probably wouldn't have been all that much, but the company's reputation was clearly sullied in this whole episode.

BLOCK: So they changed their mind. Well, why did Apple pull out of EPEAT in the first place?

KAUFMAN: That's a really good question and we don't know the answer. The company isn't saying. Many observers suggested that Apple was concerned that its newest products, including the retina Macbook Pro, you know, its fancy new machine they're advertising all the time, which does not meet the basic EPEAT standards and they wouldn't get a green certification. So perhaps Apple thought, rather than be embarrassed or worse by that, they would simply exit the rating system.

But there's another school of thought that says, no, Apple pulled out because the company just didn't want to be part of what it viewed as an antiquated product registry, one that really didn't reward Apple for its environmental innovations.

Now, whatever the motive, the company heard from lots and lots of customers and they weren't happy. A couple of days ago, Apple called EPEAT and started talking about rejoining the certification process and, today, on its website, the company said it had done just that.

Now, just to give you a sense of how much attention all this drew, the EPEAT website, not exactly a household URL, was swamped and crashed within 20 minutes of today's news.

BLOCK: Wow. Well, you mentioned that certification question. Are Apple's products, in fact, now back on the EPEAT list?

KAUFMAN: They are. All 39 of the originally certified computers and monitors are back on the list and Apple is requesting certification for more, including that fancy new Macbook Pro, apparently believing that it will, in fact, pass muster. But it's important to say here that the environmentalists and others remain concerned about the design trend in Apple's new products.

BLOCK: Design trend. What design trend are you talking about?

KAUFMAN: Well, they're building their computers thinner and thinner and one way you build thin is you glue the battery into the computer. That makes Apple's machine hard to replace, hard to upgrade and hard to recycle.

Kyle Weems is the founder of the online repair site, I Fix It. He put it to me this way.

KYLE WEEMS: This is like selling a car with tires that are, like, welded to the car so that the only way to swap out the tires is to take it back to the manufacturer. I mean, replacing a battery with a computer is routine maintenance. Batteries are something that wear out and it's normal for us to be able to replace and upgrade the battery.

KAUFMAN: So, Melissa, while everyone is happy that Apple is back in the EPEAT orbit, there are still lots and lots of environmental issues that still have to be resolved.

BLOCK: Yeah. And I wonder - are we going to be seeing new standards from EPEAT?

KAUFMAN: We are. They are in the works. They've been in the works for a while. Apple has apparently made it very clear it wants to play a big role in crafting those standards. They want to make sure they get credit for their environmental initiatives. And Apple, of course, has been an environmental leader and they want to make sure they get credit for that.

Developing the standards will be long and a complex process. There will be input from manufacturers, including Apple, environmentalists, government officials, but we're likely to see new updated standards in, I'd say, about a year.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Wendy Kaufman. Wendy, thanks.

KAUFMAN: Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.