How Apple and Greenpeace made peace

Steve Jobs and environmental watchdog Greenpeace publicly battled over toxics in Apple products but under Jobs' leadership, Apple designed cleaner products and improved its environmental practices.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
5 min read

In 2008, Apple introduced its new MacBooks as the "industry's greenest notebooks." James Martin/CNET

Steve Jobs had a hand in another lesser-known Apple achievement: more environmentally friendly electronics.

Apple and environmental watchdog group Greenpeace waged a public battle over how "green" Apple's products were over several years while Jobs was CEO. Environmental groups continue to pressure Apple to improve on some issues, but Apple's products today do not have the toxic chemicals that were there before regulations and environmental groups prodded the electronics industry to change.

In 2005, Apple was slammed by environmental watchdog groups over product recycling policies, and in 2006, Greenpeace targeted Apple over concerns regarding the use of toxic substances in its products. That led to an internal audit of Apple's recycling and electronics manufacturing practices.

Jobs stood up for the company's environmental efforts when compared to competitors, but agreed changes needed to be made and communication about Apple's policies could be more transparent. In 2007, Jobs unveiled an environmental vision for Apple he called "A Greener Apple." In it, Jobs noted that Apple had already begun restricting, and in some cases banning altogether, toxic substances mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium.

"Apple has been criticized by some environmental organizations for not being a leader in removing toxic chemicals from its new products, and for not aggressively or properly recycling its old products. Upon investigating Apple's current practices and progress towards these goals, I was surprised to learn that in many cases Apple is ahead of, or will soon be ahead of, most of its competitors in these areas," Jobs said in the disclosure.

Jobs pointed out changes Apple had made in past years, but had never before shared publicly. Apple had phased out CRTs by mid-2006 replacing them with LCDs, met the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electronics (RoHS) rules years before the EU deadline for compliance, and had steadily increased its e-waste recycling rate since 1994. Apple had also been phasing out polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic since in the 1990s, and restricting the use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in its products in 2001, according to Jobs.

The document went on to lay out substance by substance, what toxic chemicals were in Apple products and why, and a timeline for when many of them would be eliminated. Apple also agreed to start doing a yearly environmental assessment it would share with the public.

"Our stakeholders deserve and expect more from us, and they're right to do so. They want us to be a leader in this area, just as we are in the other areas of our business. So today we're changing our policy," said Jobs.

In addition to getting his own house in order, the tech visionary also had some ideas on how Greenpeace could clean up its own act. Jobs contended that Greenpeace should look more closely at what companies were doing, and not only company claims in making evaluations. Jobs made his opinions known publicly addressing Greenpeace representatives during Apple's annual shareholders meeting in May 2007.

"I think your organization particularly depends too much on principle and not enough on fact. You guys rate people based on what people say their plans are in the distant future, not what they are doing today. I think you put way too much weight on these glorified principles and way too little weight on science and engineering. It would be very helpful if your organization hired a few more engineers and actually entered into dialogue with companies to find out what they are really doing and not just listen to all the flowery language when in reality most of them aren't doing anything. That's my opinion," Jobs said.

In October 2007 Greenpeace responded by issuing a 12-page report called "Missed Call: Apple's iPhone's Hazardous Chemicals." It detailed a laboratory analysis, conducted by Greenpeace scientists and an independent lab, of Apple's iPhone components which it found were in compliance with the EU's RoHS Directive preventing the use of lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium (VI) and certain brominated flame retardants in electronics. The report upheld Jobs' claims, but Greenpeace also said it was still dissatisfied with Apple's secretive company practice of refusing to disclose all materials in its products.

"Industry's greenest notebooks"
In 2008 Jobs announced that Apple's new line of MacBook, MacBook Air, and Macbook Pro models had mercury-free LCD displays, arsenic-free display glass, polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-free internal cables and components, and no internal components containing BFRs. The cases for the MacBook and MacBook Pro are made with recyclable aluminum. Apple also includes environmental specs in its products spec sheets.

In September 2009, Jobs introduced an Apple Web site for tracking the company's carbon footprint, and environmental efforts. It offered statistics on e-waste recycling, energy usage, and toxic substances. "All of this stuff is only important for the world if you actually do it. Promises can be very hollow," Jobs told BusinessWeek with regard to Apple's green efforts.

In October 2009, Jobs made news again. This time it was for taking a strong stance on climate change. Apple abruptly resigned from being a member of the Chamber of Commerce, accusing the lobby group of planning to use its funds to oppose climate change legislation in Congress. That same year Apple verified that all its products, including iPods, were BFR-free, had mercury-free LED-backlit displays, and had arsenic-free display glass.

In its January 2010 green guide, Greenpeace praised Steve Jobs and Apple for their efforts in just five years, and said it held Apple up as a standard for other electronics companies to aspire to. All Apple products were completely free of PVC plastics and BFRs, according to both Apple and Greenpeace. Apple, however, was still in the middle of the pack when it came to ratings, which also included electronics manufacturers' lobbying activities.

In August this year, Apple once again became the subject of environmental controversy when a Chinese environmental group, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, accused the company of gross environmental neglect due to the behavior of 27 of its Chinese suppliers. The Apple suppliers were accused of extreme pollution practices including releasing toxic gases into the air and pouring heavy metal sludge into the ground and affecting water supplies. They're suspected of violating Apple's Supplier Code of Conduct, which it implemented in 2005. Apple was criticized for a lack of oversight.

"Apple is committed to driving the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply base. We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made," Apple spokeswoman Carolyn Wu told Reuters in response to the accusations.

It remains to be seen if Apple's new CEO, Tim Cook, will strive to improve his company's environmental practices, and lobbying for others to do the same.

The day after Jobs' death, Greenpeace's International Green electronics Campaigner Tom Dowdall lauded Jobs for his leadership in making the electronics industry cleaner.

"There's still much more for Apple and the rest of industry to do to be truly sustainable, both in terms of toxic free products and a clean energy future (PDF). But today is a day to reflect that among all of Steve Jobs achievements in the technology industry, one of the less well known ones is one of the most important," he wrote.