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.