Apple’s Different Shades of Green

Apple’s Different Shades of Green

Sleek designs, marketing brilliance and awe-​​inspiring technology are all behind Apple’s soaring popularity. On top of this, the company boasts of eco-​​friendly products, but a closer inspection may reveal more cunning tactics.

One of Apple’s green initiatives, the Environmental Product Reports, open with the following statement:

“Apple believes that improving the environmental performance of our business starts with our products.”

The company’s website readily highlights underlying efforts including:

  • Improved energy efficiency
  • Reducing material in products and increasing recycled content
  • Reducing toxic components
  • The afore mentioned Environmental Product Reports

A 2012 joint survey by iFixit (a company that promotes self-​​repairs of electronics) and HealthyStuff (a nonprofit organisation that researches toxic chemicals) tested quantities of 12 different hazardous chemicals in 36 different mobile devices. They showed the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 both to be ‘low concern’ products. Only 4 other products of the 36 tested fell into this category (Motorola’s Citrus, LG’s Remarq, and Samsung’s Captivate and Evergreen).

Though their efforts are laudable, it calls into question the way in which the company pursues profits and a strong eco-​​image simultaneously. This gives reason to speculate on more insidious undertakings. So if Apple’s environmental performance starts with the products, where does it end?

The answer probably lies in a strategy of planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence means products are designed with a finite life to increase the frequency of upgrades. In Apple’s case, this would seem most pertinent to mobile devices such phones and tablets, though this does not necessary exclude desktop PCs and laptops.

Personally, I first encountered telltale signs of this when iBooks and other apps on my old iPad became painfully lethargic. Catherine Rampell’s article in the New York Times offered reassurance. Titled “Cracking the Apple Trap”, Rampell describes her iPhone 4 becoming “sluggish” after the release of the iPhones 5S and 5C.

Tech analysts informed her that older models struggled to handle the new software, which was also taking a severe toll on the battery life.

A recent article by Adam Minter for Bloomberg points to more evidence. Titled “Eco-​​Friendly Apple’s Dark iPhone Secret,” Minter highlights that the iPhone 5s’ battery is “glued” to the interior aluminium case. With some difficulty (and there would certainly be more difficulty for the average consumer), iFixit was able to remove the battery using what it calls an iOpener: “a sock-​​like tool heated in a microwave and then place against glued-​​together components until they soften.” In other words, the batteries are not designed to be replaced, at least not easily. The most salient explanation is that when the battery starts to go, so must the phone. Then the upgrade fills the void.

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[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by johnkarakatsanis]

As well as offering financial gains to the company, the benefits of this strategy may extend to the industry and consumers at large. For example, if consumers held mobile devices for an average of 4 years rather than say 1 year, there would be less urgency for rival companies to innovate as quickly, and advances in the sector would slow. Having said that, the innovations of new models tend to fall into two broad categories:

  1. Major innovations offering substantial improvements or new and useful features, making upgrades very enticing even for conservative consumers. Examples include Siri, and the introduction a front camera and gyroscopic sensor with the archaic (i.e. 2010) iPhone 4. But such innovations are infrequent.
  2. Minor and largely ‘cosmetic’ improvements, such as improved retina display, fingerprint recognition, or sparkly gold casing. These tend to be more frequent, but offer short-​​lived excitement.

The problem with both cases, especially the latter, is that the intentional degradation of older models along with more frequent, unimpressive and largely ‘cosmetic’ releases traps the customer. Yet both types of upgrades result in newsworthy headlines and massive queues outside Apple stores, so how prevalent are these infrequent shoppers?

If the queues awaiting the new retina display or the gold-​​cased iPhone make up the majority as the mass media would have us believe, then surely Apple would have little to lose in offering improved longevity for the minority. Alternatively if these Apple-​​conservatives were substantial in number, which is likely the case since it would explain Apple’s strategy, then wouldn’t the frustration of a deteriorating product ultimately lead to brand switching? Not readily, since this would involve the sacrifice of purchased apps, iMessages and other ‘sticky’ features. So extends the line outside the Apple Store.

Even if the company cannot offer major technical innovations with every new model, and understandably so, surely they could think up an endless stream of enticing new designs that appeal even the more stubborn customers, much like in the fashion industry as Rampell puts it. In doing so, more customers will voluntarily make the upgrade, and the integrity and longevity of older models could be afforded to those who don’t care for the latest.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by janitors]

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by janitors]

But if Apple insists on a strategy of planned obsolescence for the profitability of its mobile devices, even at the expense of some angry customers, what are the implications for its environmental image? Quite simply, such a strategy can negate environmental performance. The sooner we upgrade, the sooner our current models become junk. It’s all very good that individual iPhones feature environmental improvements, but if these unit-​​based reductions are accompanied with an increase in the volume of iPhones produced (due to shorter lifespans), the environmental benefits rapidly diminish.

When it comes to the accumulated junk of the older models, Apple boasts of the recyclability of its products. This is certainly important however recycling is not without its impacts:

  • Recycling is energy demanding; it takes energy to disassemble, modify if necessary, and reassemble components. However Apple claims that this comprises only 2% of its greenhouse gas emissions
  • There will always leakage; those who simply throw their old products in the garbage. This is a far more significant issue, with Apple claiming1 over a 70% recycle rate on all its products globally, meaning just under 30% of material presumably goes to landfill. However this figure is suspicious since Apple assumes a 7-​​year product lifetime (on what basis?). Furthermore this leakage rate is likely to be higher for mobile devices since these a more prone to being broken or lost
  • Drawing again on Minter’s article on the glued 5s batteries, he makes the reasonable point that “if something is hard to repair, it’s also probably hard to recycle.” He goes on to suggest that Apple might improve its environmental footprint and expose itself to new business opportunities by increasing the reparability of its products.

From a purely environmental standpoint, it would be far less impacting to increase a product’s longevity, however this does not appear to easily reconciled with Apple’s business strategy.

Consequently Apple faces two main challenges with regards to its mobile devices. The first is to maintain a low holding time of its products solely by means of its own marketing and technical innovations, rather than by penalizing those who are slower to upgrade. The other challenge is to disclose information about the actual and intended longevities of its products, and to incorporate this into its Environmental Product Reports. But this might reveal a very different environmental image not easily reconciled with their objectives. In such a case, if Apple wants the best of both worlds, perhaps its environmental performance should start with strategy rather than product.

[Feature image: Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by retrocactus]