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Apple Peeling

Since we announced our updated 2008 company scores last week, many have focused on Apple’s low score.

Frankly, there are many better stories coming out of our scores this year. In fact, we felt there were so many better stories that we didn’t even mention Apple in our press release about the new scores. What about the double-digit point improvements from 2007 to 2008 of 23 of the 56 companies we’ve scored so far? What about the fact that no companies now fall below the 12-point stuck threshold in either the household products sector or the food products sector when four companies did last year? What about the fact that 84% of the companies we’ve scored have improved their score from 2007 to 2008?  This is all big news as far as we’re concerned in the growing movement to fight global climate change. Companies are recognizing - for whatever reason - that it’s no longer OK to turn a blind eye to this issue.

But all that good news aside, what’s going on with Apple? 2 points in 2007, 11 points in 2008?

Very simply, in our review of Apple’s public (consumer-accessible) reporting, what we found in 2007 and continued to find to a somewhat lesser degree in 2008 (through March 2008) was the following:

1. Apple had never made any public statements about any effort it had made to comprehensively (or in a more limited way) measure the greenhouse gas emissions from its companywide activities, among them corporate and retail facilities, design and development of products, manufacture of products by leading suppliers, and product distribution. At Climate Counts, we evaluate whether companies have used a standard and accepted protocol for measuring companywide emissions, for example the World Resource Institute’s and World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol. As a result of last week’s press coverage of the release of our 2008 scores, Apple was finally quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “We measure the emissions from all of our company’s activities.” Up until then, however, there had been no public indication of that fact, despite our direct requests to the company. We’d be interested in hearing more specifics of what standard they’re using, and if they’re trying to evaluate overseas manufacturing in their review.  But it’s a start, and this public acknowledgement of measuring emissions will improve their score in coming years. 

2. Apple had not established any public goals or timelines for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from its companywide activities. Goal-setting is both a critical part of defining corporate intent to act on climate AND an incredibly business-friendly climate metric. Our scorecard is designed to allow us to look at all kinds of corporate goal-setting. Certainly, we hope all companies will set aggressive goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions quickly and in absolute terms. Apple has set no public companywide climate protection goals, and as a result, there is no evidence that the company has achieved any greenhouse gas emissions reductions toward such a goal.

For that matter, there is no evidence of any goals by Apple to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from energy used in the use of its products. This is noteworthy because the company has clearly undergone considerable effort to make its products more energy efficient, suggesting that nearly two-thirds of the company’s impact on climate change occurs during the use of its products. How Apple arrives at that number would certainly be interesting to know. Studies on the sector as a whole reveal that as much as 70% of the energy and environmental impact of a personal computer occurs before it is purchased by the consumer. By all accounts, the manufacturing of computers and other high-tech equipment is incredibly energy intensive, and that’s what we’re concerned about at Climate Counts. Consumers can certainly decide to purchase the most energy-efficient, “greenest” products they can (although we question the positive impact of replacing last year’s model with this year’s “greener” one; the issue of “embodied energy” presents one of the reasons why we should think differently about buying green), but that’s the consumer’s responsibility in all of this. When companies understand their impact and set clear, public goals to reduce the energy they use in producing gadgets and getting them to consumers, it sends a critical message to consumers that this kind of accountability is important. It’s important that governments, consumers, AND companies accept that kind of accountability.

We applaud Apple’s efforts to understand the life-cycle impact of its products, and we awarded full points (4 points) to the company for those activities. We also acknowledged with 3 of a possible 4 points the company’s efforts to educate consumers in a general way about environmental action and to engage with other companies on energy efficiency as part of the California Green Power Group (along with the company’s green power investments, which also earned a point). There a range of environmental activities that Apple has underway that we did not award points for using our narrow-by-design lens that looks at corporate climate activities. We certainly agree that product recycling efforts and other related initiatives can have a tremendous impact on energy use and, as such, greenhouse gas emissions, but we believe it is important for companies to demonstrate that those activities are connected to a broader climate action strategy before we consider them as actions that merit points on a climate-focused scorecard.

3. Apple has not actively or publicly engaged on the climate policy front. Apple has made no public statements in support climate protection policy at the local, state, federal or international level.

4. Apple’s reporting on all of its climate activities in considerably less detailed than any of its major competitors. Climate Counts has reviewed all the information available on Apple’s climate performance on its website and elsewhere. We’ve read A Greener Apple posted last May to the Apple website, as well as the “Environment” and the “Energy Efficiency” pages on the site - and much more. Compare, just as an example, Apple’s reporting to the Carbon Disclosure Project with that of IBM (this year’s sector score leader). The information simply doesn’t shed any light - as much as we would like it to - on what Apple is doing or plans to do to address greenhouse gas emissions companywide.

Climate Counts utilizes a team of independent researchers to gather publicly available information on the companies we have scored. They are a very well-trained team, representing many important slices of the consumer marketplace. They’re environmental researchers, they’re communications professionals, they’re business analysts. In many ways, they’re people just like you. They’re people who want to know what companies are doing to address climate change, and they’re charged with helping you get answers.

To score well, companies must be up front with consumers on their stance on climate.   Some have described this as a flaw of our scoring system-implying that companies that aren’t marketing their “green credentials” suffer and that we reward talk over action. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our experience is that if companies aren’t willing to be transparent, aren’t willing to face scrutiny from an increasingly sophisticated marketplace, they’re obstructing the issue. They’re not part of a solution that requires action from multiple fronts. The time for companies to just say “trust us, we’re good on climate” has passed. Consumers want to see - and follow - companies committed to real substantive action.

Even in the wake of so much cyber-attention to Apple’s low Climate Counts score for a second year running, we’re still focused on the positive stories coming out of this year’s scores. Many companies (and their consumers) are realizing that meaningful climate action is a crucial part of the future of any company that is focused on the 21st century. We continue our quest as an organization to find the true corporate leaders on climate protection who embrace the opportunity to lock arms with their consumers and stand unified in the fight to stop global warming.

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