Can tech ever be eco-friendly or is it just greenwashing?

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 11/06/2012

We buy a lot of gadgets, and increasingly they're glued-together tablets and locked-down ultra-thin laptops - bad news given that the greenest tech is the hardware that can be cracked open, stripped down and fitted with new components.


September 25 2012

by Nicole Kobie - PC Pro

We buy a lot of gadgets, and increasingly they're glued-together tablets and locked-down ultra-thin laptops – bad news given that the greenest tech is the hardware that can be cracked open, stripped down and fitted with new components.

Looking at the sales figures, this isn't foremost in most consumers' minds when buying a new laptop. Who thinks about how green a gadget is when there are specifications, price and how incredibly sexy it looks to focus on? And for those who do have the future of the planet weighing heavily on their mind, there’s always a handful of green logos and obscure certification details to assuage their guilt. But do they mean anything – and do customers even care if it’s all only greenwash?

The perfect case in point is Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display. It’s a lovely laptop, and while it made our A-List, it fell off another list. Without explanation, Apple yanked its products from EPEAT – the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, a US registry of green-certified technology, used for government procurement. While Apple’s products previously received top marks, EPEAT’s CEO, the wonderfully named Robert Frisbee, suggested the MacBook Pro wouldn’t have been certified, and that Apple’s "design direction" didn’t fit its standards – a damning statement about a firm that likes to chirp about its environmental ideals.

Apple, as usual, went quiet on the issue – but its fans and detractors didn’t. The co-founder of repair forum iFixit, Kyle Wiens, claimed the new MacBook Pro is too difficult to recycle, saying his own team was washing "hazardous goo" off their hands after attempting to remove the laptop’s battery. Others pointed out that Apple’s products aren’t meant to be fiddled with – you don’t buy a MacBook Pro, the reasoning goes, and attack it with a screwdriver.

Days later, Apple did something unheard of: it publicly changed its mind. "We’ve recently heard from many loyal Apple customers who were disappointed to learn that we had removed our products from the EPEAT rating system," wrote Bob Mansfield, senior vice president of hardware engineering, in an open letter. "I recognise that this was a mistake."

So, it would seem customers do care! Complaining does work! All it took was a few days of pressure for Apple to back down and go green. Except... this isn’t what happened. Nothing has changed with the new MacBook Pro. Apple hasn’t altered the battery design or made any other improvements; if you weren’t happy with its green credentials before, then there’s no new reason to make you alter that opinion now.

That might come as a surprise, as since Apple rejoined EPEAT, its new MacBook Pro landed Gold certification. However, it turns out the registry is self-certified – the laptop scores top marks because Apple says it does.

EPEAT tests such claims with spot-checks – it’s placed the MacBook Pro on its "priority" list for one – and says it publicly names and shames firms that fail verification, but it takes some digging to find the data; it’s buried in thickly worded reports and jargon-filled charts.

In the last round of tests, 52 products from thousands around the world were tested, and 17 were found to not match the companies’ claims. If that small sample was representative, just under a third of the products with EPEAT certification aren’t as green as they make out.

EPEAT says it doesn’t pre-certify because components and sourcing can change in a product’s lifetime, meaning "a one-time investigation before a product is released is fundamentally inadequate". Testing after release is hardly an adequate alternative – thousands of laptops may already be in use in a government agency by the time EPEAT has discovered it doesn’t meet the criteria.

EPEAT certification is little better than taking a company on its own word; a standard is supposed to take trust out of the equation, handing it to an independent third party.

Explaining EPEAT’s own apparent U-turn – allowing the MacBook Pro to take the top ranking despite telling The Wall Street Journal that the structure of that laptop made it ineligible for certification – Frisbee said standards must evolve with innovation. That’s true: they should get tougher, not weaker. As PC makers push thinner laptops and tablets, they should be forced to innovate in green design, too.