One baaaad Apple…

“The New MacBook’s Green Credentials”, by Joe Hutsko, New York Times, 17 November 2008.

“Dell, Apple, Microsoft, HP Perceived as U.S. Green Tech Leaders”, Environmental Leader, 30 November 2008.

“Apple Removes Green Certification From All Products” by Matt Petronzio, Mashable.com, 9 July 2012.

“Apple’s green standard pullout puts some CIOs on spot” Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, 10 July 2012.

I’ll preface this with a disclaimer I gave back in October: I have rarely given favorable praise to Apple; I’m a bit of an Apple contrarian.

In 2008, Apple was ranked among the top perceived green tech brands. Another study in 2009 by GreenBiz placed Apple in The Earthsense 35–the top 10% of “350 companies familiar to consumers in their everyday lives.” Further, back in 2009, Apple thoroughly touted its green standards with the new MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro was to be EnergyStar compliant, reduced volatile organic compounds, and made from recyclable aluminum. Apple invested heavily on a “greenest family of notebooks” marketing spree throughout 2009–a year before the vaunted iPad was released.

Flash forward 3 1/2 years and Apple now seeks 39 of its products removed from the green registry of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). Essentially Apple has decided to “go it alone” on environmental issues.

What’s striking to me is that despite consumer perceptions of Apple as “green” and despite Apple’s own marketing as “green”, anecdotal discussions I had with several Apple brand loyalists back in the beginning of the year strongly implied that “green culture” pervaded the Apple brand. In essence, the argument went, Apple was perceived as green because of a reversal of the “halo effect” typically discussed in marketing–those who were “countercultural, anti-PC individualists” were influencing brand perceptions. While the image of an Apple does evoke environmentalism, it’s Apple’s own marketing made its green credentials explicit. Those who perceived the brand was culture jammed by a post-modern hippy culture were incorrect.

Which is why the news of Apple pulling out of the EPEAT green registry brings partial disappointment. On the one hand, it means Apple is ‘free’ to be beholden to its own environmental standards, rather than third-party certifiation standards. This is akin to Starbucks being one of the world’s largest fair trade coffee purchasers (despite criticism that it doesn’t purchase enough fair trade coffee). On the other hand, not being beheld to a third-party certification standards breeds a legitimacy issue. This is akin to Starbucks only having two blends of certified Fair Trade coffee, but not demonstrating that any of the rest of its whole beans pay farmers above market value. (I will admit, as a part-former Starbucks brand loyalist, I toed the company line on this one.) Apple may or may not be continuing along an environmentally-responsible path, however legitimacy takes a blow once a company leaves a certification scheme.

The last thing Apple should need right now is a legitimacy crisis  (although its unparalleled brand loyalty seems virtually unquestioned). Like it or not, Apple’s sustainability halo–if I may call it that–was self-inflicted. When a brand takes a hit to the tripartite sustainability principles of environmental and labor protection and social justice, it should be taking steps to legitimate its own efforts. Following the New York Times’s January expose on iPad factory conditions, NLRB audits of the Foxconn factories helped Apple re-legitimate its labor principles, but this news of dropping out of EPEAT de-legitimates its environmental principles. It’s not that the products have changed; it’s that there isn’t any third-party standard to overcome greenwashing claims.

An article by Tillmann, Lutz, and Weitz (2009) found that there are certain inocuation strategies companies could use to overcome hypocrisy on social responsibility. For example, Apple has the potential to release its own moderately negative CSR information or to release counterarguments. I suspect Apple will lean heavily on the latter strategy, claiming that future Apple designs will be more environmentally-friendly than EPEAT standards. It’s not that this might be a false claim; Apple is great at pushing radical innovation and it’s planned new headquarters is a marvel. But perhaps market mechanisms may encourage consumer skepticism sooner than radical eco-innovation will take root.

Either way, the subjective perceptions of the Apple brand won’t likely be tarnished too badly. In the short-term, Apple brand loyalists will engage in dissonance reduction to ensure Apple is still perceived as a “good” company and Apple contrarians (such as myself) will only reinforce perceptions that Apple is entirely fallible. In the long-term, perhaps this is a blessing in disguise for us all.

Dinah blow your horn…

“The ‘Busy Trap” by Tim Kreider, New York Times (30 June 2012)

“Enough is enough of the age of consumption” by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, Financial Times (4 July 2012)

During the past week, I’ve seen Tim Kreider’s above article, “The ‘Busy’ Trap” quoted/posted on Facebook/tweeted/retweeted nearly a dozen times (if you combined both my personal and my professional web addresses).

The gist of the article is as follows: Society is evermore busy. Society wants to be busy. Society can’t stand not being busy and perishes the thought of idleness. Even our children need to be busy. The article embeds 1000 other arguments that society has collectively heard over and over again for the past decade (and has failed to make changes)–we work too hard, we don’t play enough, when we do play, it’s work, we check Facebook too often, we don’t stop to smell the roses, we’re too concerned about things, etc. You get the drift.

 

I think back to a line from my favorite book, Fight Club: ” The things you own end up owning you.” We live in an age where materialism/consumerism meets anti-materialism/consumerism and yet paradoxically, the coexistence of these constructs hasn’t managed to annihilate society. I even question if the Puritan/Protestant work ethic has enabled American and British societies to meet their spiritual demises.

Enter the Skidelsky’s op-ed a few days later…

The gist of the article is as follows: Economists predicted we’d save so much, we’d drive ourselves into consuming just what we need. Instead, we’ve worked to improve consumption by improving goods, so we consume more. Yet as a society, the richer we are, the poorer we are. In order to compensate, we fall into “serial consumption” or the “consumption treadmill.” And there are ways we could be nudged away from such consumption.

Maybe it is the annhilation of society.

Literature is replete with studies on happiness and treadmill effects. Take, for example, this article by Mathias Binswager (2006 Journal of Socio-Economics). The more income grows, the more people try to “get ahead.” This ability to “get ahead” is predicated by “busyness”, and so forth. In reality, the treadmill is exactly what it’s a metaphor for: a device that presents an illusion of forward motion, requiring the user to perform such motion as to not fall off, but without achieving actual forward motion. This explains why people don’t really get happier when they get richer (or get more “stuff”).

That said, I’m wondering if there’s another phenomenon at work here. Perhaps the demands of busyness are largely due to materialism. In their article, “The Safety of Objects: Materialism, Existential Insecurity, and Brand Connection”, Rindfleisch, Burroughs, and Wong (2008) found a relationship between materialism and existential insecurity. In lay terms: people buy more stuff because they’re afraid of dying. The consumption treadmill has become Church.

Perhaps what these articles are really calling for is a return to spirituality–not in the spirituality of objects and the process of attaining those objects, but the spirituality of humanistic or theistic religions. Yesterday, the world was awed by news of the discovery of the Higgs boson, aka, the “God particle”, which ties the mass of the universe together.  And while the science vs. religion debate can go on until the cows come home, it’s a vast universe out there; both science and religion are about seeking answers to the big questions of life. Perhaps the materialism void that’s leading to busyness needs to lead back to spirituality instead in answering these existential questions.

I’m not advocating any religion in particular here–people ultimately believe in whatever they want. But it strikes me as though the mental, physical, and social benefits of finding inner peace are far greater than anything provided by outward consumption. Perhaps we need to return to understanding why we own the things we do, that way things we own don’t end up owning us afterall.