Jobs defends Apple's record on environment

As protesters picket the computer maker over its recycling policy, Apple's CEO calls the criticism misplaced. Photo: Lobbying for a green Apple

CUPERTINO, Calif.--With Apple Computer shares having more than doubled during the past year, shareholders turned much of their attention at Thursday's annual meeting to other concerns, including environmental issues and the dearth of women in senior roles at the computer maker.

CEO Steve Jobs defended the company's record on recycling and other environmental concerns, which were the subject of a picket that attracted about a dozen protesters outside the shareholder meeting, held at the company's headquarters.

Apple protesters

After Rachel Gibson, who was speaking on behalf of an environmentally oriented mutual fund called Green Century Funds, asked why Apple wasn't doing more to take back its products, Jobs thanked Gibson for the question and launched into a lengthy speech on Apple's environmental efforts, noting that the company took back 1,500 tons of material in 2004 through its recycling program, with 90 percent of the 3 million pounds of keyboards, mice and computers able to be recycled.

"They have an image of being proactive, but they are being really reactive," said Sheila Davis, who recently took over as director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "Other companies like HP and Dell are really stepping forward."

Another member of the environmental group, Gopal Dayaneni, criticized Jobs, saying the Apple executive called the group last week and asked it not to picket, but was unwilling to sit down for a meeting to discuss the issues.

But Jobs said that Apple takes its environmental responsibilities seriously and added that the company is leading the industry on environmental issues. He also expressed frustration at Apple being singled out for criticism over its peers, calling it "bullshit."

Jobs said that he takes issue with the notion put forth by environmental activists that product recycling should be free to consumers.

"We think $30 is a reasonable price to charge," he said, pointing out that Dell charges about $20 to recycle a complete PC system and Hewlett-Packard charges about $40. However, as Jobs was speaking, both HP and Dell sweetened their offers as part of Earth Day campaigns, cutting at least temporarily the cost of sending gear back to the companies.

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Activists, who launched a campaign against Apple in January, held up signs reading "It's Earth Day, not trash the earth day," and "Steve, don't be a bad apple." One man showed up dressed as an iPod inscribed with the words: "My trendy toy turned toxic trash today."

In particular, protesters focused on the fact that Apple's iPod comes with a battery that cannot be replaced easily by consumers and the fact Apple charges $100 for a new battery--a significant percentage of the cost of the iPod itself. "Most consumers are just going to throw it away and get a new one," Davis said.

Jobs took issue with that, pointing out that consumers often throw batteries into the trash. He also said that tens of thousands of iPod customers have replaced their batteries through Apple and that Apple properly disposes of the depleted batteries. He went on to note that while the iPod has a small amount of lead, much more of the harmful compound is in cathode-ray tube monitors, which Apple has abandoned for all but its eMac computers.

As to the lack of women in senior positions, Jobs said there are many women in different roles at the company, but said he understands the company has a dearth of female executives.

"It is a deficiency we have," he said. "We recognize it and we are trying to solve it."

The board issue has come up repeatedly, as all seven of Apple's directors are men. Jobs said the company is having a tough time recruiting board members generally because new regulations make the job "onerous."

During the formal business part of the meeting, which lasted less than 15 minutes, Apple shareholders approved the company's current slate of directors for another year, approved expansions of the stock option and employee stock purchase program and also approved a new cash bonus program, which Apple had said was necessary despite the fact that four top executives had received stock-based compensation totaling more than $25 million in the past year.

Shareholders voted down a proposal from a metal workers' union to focus incentive pay on restricted stock grants based on specific performance characteristics. Apple had opposed the idea.

There were also the usual questions about which new products were on the way (no comment), whether Apple would offer a dividend (no) and a bevy of suggestions as to ways the company could better market the Mac against Windows-based computers. Shareholders, many of them longtime Mac users, packed Apple's Town Hall conference center, as another two dozen stockholders and reporters were housed in an overflow room.

Jobs was also asked about his health, particularly as he is seen as the primary architect of the company's recent success. Jobs took time off last year to have surgery for pancreatic cancer, but has since returned to the CEO job full time.

"I'm vertical," he quipped, adding that he did not want to give a full update on his health because then he would be expected to do so on a regular basis. "I feel just fine. I'm doing great."