The Computer TakeBack Campaign, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and a whole lot of smaller environmental groups are challenging former Vice President Al Gore to use his clout to get Apple to become more green.
Gore is a board member at Apple which, the environmentalists say, lags behind competitorsâ€”notably Dell and Hewlett Packardâ€”when it comes to recycling computers and eliminating toxic chemicals from its laptops, desktops and other electronic devices.
Apple also lags Dell and HP in reporting on environmental and social issuesâ€”and it is not nearly as ready to talk about its social and environmental impact with activist groups.
Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, who has built relationships with HP and Dell as they have improved their recycling practices, says Apple is a laggard in substance and in its way of doing business.
â€œApple just wonâ€™t deal with stakeholders, period,â€ Kyle told me. â€œThey have a completely different attitude from even Wal-Mart at this point. They donâ€™t want anyone to tell them anything, and they wonâ€™t agree to benchmarking of what they are doing.â€
In a letter to Gore, John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, notes that about 50 million tons of e-waste is generated around the world each year. Much of it ends up being disassembled by cheap labor, under unsafe conditions, in scrap yards in the global South. Then he quotes Goreâ€™s own words back to him from his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance:
â€œâ€¦the growing problems associated with international waste shipments have led to much debate, and one African leader recently denounced â€˜garbage imperialism,â€™…waste mountains are rising in the Third World not only because of the pressures of population growth; equally responsible is a pattern of conspicuous consumption that has been exported to these countries along with Western culture and its consumer productsâ€
Is this fair to Apple? How about to Gore, who has been a director of the company since 2003?
The criticisms of Apple strike me, for the most part, as well founded. Its recycling program doesnâ€™t measure up to Dellâ€™s. Dell will take back, at no charge, any of its electronics, at any time. Apple puts obstacles up. It wonâ€™t take back old Apples unless the customerâ€™s buying a new one. The customer has to return the old one within 30 days. You canâ€™t bring back your old computers to Apple stores. (They will take back iPods.) Nor is the program available in Hawaii and Alaska, which might not seem like a big deal unless you live there. Dell and HP also runs more local recycling events than Apple. Dellâ€™s got partnerships with Goodwill and other nonprofits to take back its machines. In shortâ€”Dellâ€™s a leader, Appleâ€™s a laggard.
The comparisons in terms of toxics arenâ€™t as clear cut. Appleâ€™s being asked to phase PVCs and brominated flame retardants out of its products. Fine. But as of now, Apple, HP and Dell all continue to use those materials while seeking replacements. Apple says it is working to phase them out. HP and Dell say they will do so by 2009. That seems like a marginal difference to me, although it’s preferable to set a target date.
But it points to more significant gap that Apple ought to address: The company is not as transparent or accountable or willing to lay down specific goals and timetables as are its competitors. HP and Dell publish extensive corporate social responsibility reports; they report on a range of environmental issues, and invite outside critics to review their progress. Apple provides some useful information on its websiteâ€”you can see for yourself hereâ€”but much of it reads more like spin than a candid self-assessment.
As for Gore, heâ€™s in hot water with the environmentalists because Apple told them in a letter that its board voted unanimously against two shareholder resolutions, filed by As You Sow, a nonprofit that works with socially responsible shareholders, and Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm. They asked the company to study and report on both the recycling and toxics issues. Why would Gore vote against them? Well, if corporate governance worked the way it ought to, corporate directors would be willing to be independent, to criticize management or to vote against board majoritiesâ€”but very, very few directors, sadly, will do that. (Gore also sat on an Apple board committee that cleared Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs. of wrongdoing over options backdating, but that’s another story.) In any event, donâ€™t expect Gore to hold a press conference slamming Apple for its environmental policies anytime soon.
Although he did write in Earth in the Balance:
The time has long since come to take more political risks — and endure more political criticism — by proposing tougher, more effective solutions and fighting hard for their enactments.
The bigger question is, what, if anything, has Gore done as a director to press Apple to change? There is, of course, no way to know. I called Gore’s spokeswoman, Kalee Kreider who, as it happens, once worked for Greenpeace; she told me he didn’t want to speak publicly on these issues. To his credit, Gore did sit down last spring with the activist groups, including the Computer TakeBack Campaign and he brought along an Apple exec. (Gore asked them to keep the meeting quiet, but Greenpeace spilled the beans last week.) Thatâ€™s more than Steve Jobs was willing to do. Jobs met with As You Sow, since they are shareholders, but, as far as we know, he has never sat down with an environmental group. Most CEOs now understand that they have a lot to gain and nothing to lose by meeting with their critics, but not Jobs. Does the word arrogance come to mind?
The other reason to think that Gore could well be doing the best he can is that Apple has made meaningful progress around environmental issues in the last year or two. It expanded its recycling efforts. It responded for the first time (albeit incompletely) to the Carbon Disclosure Project, which asks companies to report on their greenhouse gas emissions. It’s reducing the size and weight of its computers and its packaging. It adopted a supplier code of conduct in 2005. It reported publicly on a controversy surrounding iPod manufacturing in China. I’m speculating, but it is logical to think that Gore has played a constructive role.
Conrad MacKerron, director of corporate responsibility for As You Sow–which helped Dell become a leader on recycling–says Gore needs to do more. “Dell is the gold standard, and I’d like to see Apple step up,” he says.
Me, too. I’m writing this on a MacBook and I’m a fan of most things Apple. I shudder to think about how much money I’ve spent on MacBooks, iBooks, iPods and iTunes for myself and my daughters. I’ve never been invited to recycle my old stuff. Apple gadgets come in a range of colors–it’s time that they come in green, too.
NOTE: I revised this blog post and turned it into a CNNMoney column a few days later, available here.