[Update, 7/13: Well, that was quick—Apple has just announced that they are re-adopting EPEAT, huzzah!]
Apple recently decided to completely withdraw all current and future products from the globally accepted green electronics registry and rating program EPEAT because the standards involved no longer fit their "design direction." The message that this sends to the design community is profound. That the decision was made in the name of design is disingenuous and a disservice to all designers and engineers. But was it, in fact, a necessary step for Apple to take in order to keep running as fast as they are, year after year?
EPEAT is one of the most open, stakeholder-driven, equitable and sophisticated multi-variate eco-labels in the world, covering everything from lifecycle, energy, materials, packaging, recycling and social equity issues. It is a model eco-label that has transformed the industry towards cleaner, greener and more sound practices. Its existence benefits a wide-ranging and global value chain touching hundreds of related industries and markets. The standard has helped environmental and social NGOs working to help solve e-waste and promote effective recycling globally, and the innovations in materials and energy efficiency standards that have evolved from the adoption of the standard have had positive consequences on energy use and the flow of toxic chemicals and compounds in the mining, production and recycling phases of the life of electronics globally.
As one of the companies intimately involved in building the EPEAT standard, it's a remarkable shift for Apple, who have, up until this decision, used their product track record of being rewarded the highest EPEAT Gold ratings as a badge of honor in talking about their environmental commitments. Steve Jobs mentioned the rating by name several times from the podium in product announcements. Apple's continued commitment to reducing packaging, improving the energy efficiency performance of their products, reducing the impact of toxic materials, support of recycling and recent efforts towards improving social equity and manufacturing standards are all in line with the mission and guidelines of the EPEAT rating system.
On the surface, the decision, combined with a lack of communication about it by Apple, effectively sends a message of disregard for the combined work of dozens of organizations, NGOs and even entire countries who have collaborated for years to build a multi-billion dollar, stakeholder-driven, transparent, sustainable market for green electronics. The specification of EPEAT rated products in purchasing and procurement policies has been adopted by institutions, municipalities and is now recognized and required by many countries for their government purchasing. Can you imagine how pleased EPEAT member companies like Samsung, HP and Dell are now with the idea that the U.S. Government and many others can no longer purchase Apple laptops, computers, and monitors?
Owing to the lack of official announcement by Apple, one theory is that this is a symbolic case of technology outpacing the eco-labelling organization's ability to keep up with the constantly shifting manifestations of consumer electronics. In a world in which the distance between cinematic, futuristic visions and real-world applications of holographic, touch-based, virtual surfaces and devices is narrowing rapidly, the ability to re-define and update standards that keep pace with these platforms is incredibly challenging. The unrelenting push of Moore's Law towards higher computing power in more ever more compact, miniature forms exceeds the ability of standards setting organizations to keep pace, and EPEAT—as of this writing—only covers desktops, notebooks and displays. Imaging equipment, including TVs, printers, copiers and scanners are on the near horizon to be included in the standard.
There are equivalents of technology outpacing standards in other sustainability-based design rating systems. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standard has for years been criticized on a number of fronts, including its lack of teeth and ability to evolve quickly. Alternate, innovative and holistic standards like the Living Building Challenge have risen to fill the need for more forward-looking architects and builders. But for all of its glacial pace, LEED has without question transformed the entire building industry globally, and has transformed entire markets, while raising worldwide awareness about sustainability in the built environment. It's not perfect, but it serves a purpose and moves a very large needle forward through a coalition of the willing.
The EPEAT process is known to be very slow due to its stakeholder driven, peer-reviewed decision-making process. It can take years for new standards and product categories to be included in the program, and for updates to filter their way through the organization's vetting process and make it into the published standard. The iPad, for instance, is currently not covered by the "PC" standard of EPA's Energy Star, which is one of the base requirements to participate in the EPEAT rating program. The "Slate" category that the iPad falls in is currently in the process of being approved by Energy Star, and in so doing, would open the iPad up for scrutiny by the EPEAT rating process, which it would have very likely failed on the ease of disassembly requirement, despite being very energy efficient. This could very well have been one of the factors that triggered this decision by Apple, along with the most recent MacBoook Pro which has been found to be exceedingly difficult to disassemble.
There is an implicit conceit that in order to continue to design things on their own terms, Apple needs to run free, unconstrained, to innovate and produce objects of desire and profound beauty and performance. These products define their brand and have re-defined an entire industry, making them the most valuable company in the world. Year after year they pioneer new and often environmentally friendly technologies in their products. But did they have to abandon EPEAT in the name of design?
One of the important outcomes of the work of groups like EPEAT is to agree, through an open process, on what the definition of green design is. When a company like Apple is no longer able to defend their design decisions and product strategy against this peer-reviewed standard, the response of running for the hills is less than productive.
Apple offers a generous recycling and take-back program of its own, and works with a series of contractors to refurbish or recycle their products, claiming to take back up to 70% of weight of products sold annually (based on sales figures from seven years earlier). Their other claim is that since their products are designed so well, the need for removable batteries or DIY upgrades and repairs is rendered unnecessary due to longer useful product life. Yet in the desire to fly solo, Apple is setting itself up on a path to create shortcuts in design thinking that have moved the entire industry towards better practices in design with an end-of-life in mind. As an example, to cram everything into the tight spaces of the latest MacBook Pro, it is literally held together with industrial glue in places, rendering parts of it (a battery in this instance) irrecoverable by standard tools and recycling practices. This was not the case for earlier, sleek designs like the MacBook Air which were guided, in part, by the aspiration to meet EPEAT Gold standards. This is where the value of standards become clear.
When electronics are designed and manufactured in ways that prevent disassembly and recycling, they end up, in the best-case scenario, being put into an industrial chipper, separated and processed down to pieces of plastics and metals, going through processes to recover precious metals and to mitigate toxic chemicals. Despite best efforts, the worst case scenario is that unregulated smelting activity still occurs in horrific conditions in developing countries, something that groups like Greenpeace continue to work towards putting to an end.
A central assumption in their decision to exit EPEAT is that in order to meet tighter design tolerances and to incorporate new and innovative materials and engineering techniques into current and future products, Apple would have to principally abandon the idea of design for ease of disassembly. This disassembly mandate or constraint, depending on how you look at it, is one of the key pieces of the puzzle in designing products for recycling, take back, upgrades and extended lifetime. Apple already performs wild feats of engineering prowess to make their products appear seamless, and revel in their ingenious solutions in beautifully shot videos celebrating the magic of designing within constraints. Their efforts have spawned an entire DIY industry via sites like iFixIt to help owners deconstruct and potentially service or upgrade their products. But to use this constraint now as an excuse, that the requirement to make things possible to take apart, recycle and repair gets in the way of elegant design is disrespectful to the disciplines of both design and engineering, let alone groups working to make recycling electronics easier. This equation only gets worse as more and more electronics enter the world.
Design within constraints has always been a hallmark of effective design in any industry. It is, by many accounts, the thing that actually fosters innovation. Think NASA. Or think soda cans designed to participate in a global recycling industry. On both ends of the complexity scale, the idea of designing within constraints, especially those pertaining to repair, re-use, recycling and participation in global standards, is a fundamental piece of "design thinking" for this or any century. Design is about constraints. Sustainable design is about lifecycle constraints. For Apple to play the design card to exit this equation and social compact is troubling.
Equivalents in other design and engineering-driven companies abound. One great example is BMW Group, who have for years designed all of their cars for disassembly. BMW's holistic commitment to sourcing clean energy for the production of their vehicles and their rigorous design for sustainability and life-cycle policies have led them to be named year after year the greenest car company in the world. Now they have taken the unprecedented step of completely re-engineering and re-thinking their car design paradigm for the new BMW-i brand. BMW designers and engineers have designed the very foundation of their advanced electric vehicle program around the idea of a removable battery platform that also serves a secondary performance function of using the distributed weight of the batteries for performance. Every single design decision that BMW makes is for one purpose: high-performance. Being able to combine this performance mandate, the very DNA of their brand, with a sustainability mandate allowed them to open an entirely new and incredibly sexy direction for the company.
Clearly now is not the time for design-driven and influential companies like Apple to abandon international standards and agreements designed to move an entire global industry towards more sustainable practices. Apple serves as an important icon of the transformative power of design. For them to make such deep commitments as an organization to sustainability, and then bow-out so gracelessly from a group of peers to go their own way is counter-productive to exactly what the world needs right now, which is participation, collaboration and role-models.
Apple is surely the BMW, Ferrari and Porsche of the consumer electronics industry all rolled into one mercurial package. It would benefit the entire design profession if they would continue to support the important work of global standards like EPEAT while continuing to lead the pack in designing for sustainability, designing for the 21st century, for a time when bigger picture considerations need to ride shotgun with beauty.
About Marc Alt
Marc Alt is a futurist working at the intersection of design, ecology and technology. He is the founder and publisher of Open Source Cities.
Marc Alt and Jill Fehrenbacher, editor and founder of Inhabitat, co-founded "Greener Gadgets" a conference in New York City examining ideas around design for sustainability, energy efficiency, product take-back, e-waste and implications on social justice and environment in the consumer electronics industry. High-level delegates from HP, Nokia, Dell and other CE companies, along with designers from IDEO, frog, and fuseproject and editors from Core77 and BusinessWeek participated in the discussion.