Greenpeace and Others Bite into Apple’s Tough Skin

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Apple has long been crafting an image of responsibility and transparency and hasn’t been investigated much until recently. In February, news sources reported on poor working conditions in the factories of the Chinese company Foxconn Technology Group, which assembles products for Apple. The company employs 1.2 million workers who practically live within the factory, taking their meals and sleeping without stepping beyond its gates. Foxconn forbids workers from speaking to reporters and places employees under constant surveillance. The company gained international attention when several workers committed suicide in 2010 and in February, Apple requested that the Fair Labor Association audit Foxconn. The FLA found that the company was grossly exceeding legal work hours in China. Last month, Students and Scholars Against Criminal Misbehavior (SACOM), interviewed 170 Foxconn workers and discovered that they were unaware of the chemicals they were working with, that they were living in Foxconn apartments with as many as 30 other people, and that they received cruel punishments for declining overtime.

Apple came under fire again this week as its environmental responsibility, a key aspect of its image, was called into question. Apple has been praised for the information it provides about its products and its mantra of efficiency. The company’s website boasts, “Though our revenue has grown, our greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue have decreased by 15.4 percent since 2008. And we’re still the only company in our industry whose entire product line not only meets but exceeds the strict energy guidelines of the ENERGY STAR specification.” Apple has eliminated five major toxins from its production processes, and it continually makes its products (and thus packaging) smaller and lighter. Apple states, “The iPad became 33 percent thinner and up to 15 percent lighter in just one generation, producing 5 percent fewer carbon emissions… The packaging for iPhone 4 is 42 percent smaller than for the original iPhone… That means that 80 percent more iPhone 4 boxes fit on each shipping pallet… and fewer boats and planes are used – resulting in fewer CO2 emissions.”

But in June, Apple announced that it would no longer submit its products for EPEAT certification. EPEAT is a program which the government uses to gauge energy efficiency and recyclability. 95 percent of the computers and monitors that the government uses must be EPEAT-approved. Speculators say that Apple’s decision was based on a design issue in the new MacBook Pro with the high definition Retina Display. The battery is glued to the MacBook’s metal casing, making it difficult to disassemble and recycle. Last week, Apple came under attack by Greenpeace for a claim that its data centers (namely one in North Carolina), which provide the iCloud service for 125 million users, would be run on 100 percent renewable energy. Greenpeace pointed out that two of Apple’s existing data centers are in areas where 50 to 60 percent of electricity is produced through burning coal. The organization also suggested that Apple begin talks with Duke Energy, the electricity provider for the North Carolina data center and invest in biogas.

Apple responded to Greenpeace’s accusations by explaining that it is a leader in solar power, that its North Carolina and California data centers will be coal-free by 2013 and that its planned data centers in Oregon and Nevada will operate on renewable resources from opening day. In addition, pressure from its customers forced Apple to reverse its decision on EPEAT. Senior VP of hardware engineering Bob Mansfield said about the decision: “I recognize that this was a mistake.” Apple’s statement on Friday also called out EPEAT: “Our engineering teams have worked incredibly hard over the years to make our products even more environmentally friendly, and much of our progress has come in areas not yet measured by EPEAT.” Apple is fourth on Greenpeace’s ranking of tech company greenness, trumped only by HP, Dell and Nokia, who have sustainable operations and energy management but few green products. Apple ranks high for green products but scores poorly on energy, according to the organization.


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