Apple board wants green proposal blocked

9 January 2009

Apple might claim to be the maker of "the world's greenest family of notebooks" but the company is recommending to its shareholders to vote down a proposal that would make it easier to work out just how green it is.

Proposal four in the company's proxy statement, released on January 7 ahead of the company's annual general meeting in late February, asks the company to put together a sustainability report "describing corporate strategies regarding climate change, specifically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and addressing other environmental and social impacts such as toxics and recycling, as well as employee and product safety".

Although proposed by an individual shareholder, the move is backed by an investment fund – Green Century Equity Fund – and the Office of the New York City Comptroller, which holds around 2 million shares or 0.2 per cent of Apple's stock. A sizeable holding. Green Century holds around 7000 shares. The fund claims as an achievement the move by Apple to take back iPods for recycling.

In recommending that shareholders vote against the motion, Apple claimed that it already publishes much of the information, albeit in a bunch of different places: "...the Board believes that the proposal has been substantially addressed and publication of an additional report would produce little added value while requiring unnecessary time and expense".

Take, for example the product environmental reports. "No other company in the Company's industry provides this amount of detail at the product level," Apple says in the proxy statement. It's a claim that will take some checking but is possible as Apple has produced documents for a range of products – others have published statistics for selected, representative products.

However, it's difficult to parse the results as Apple has not provided the assumptions under which it calculated the energy consumed during use, or whether all the emissions from upstream suppliers, particularly the chipmakers, have been taken into account. I can't find in the MacBook Air document, for example, what the expected lifetime of the machine is or what proportion of the time is spent off, sleeping or working. Curiously, the company provides power estimates only as far as idling with the screen on, not actually doing stuff, which I assume the machine will be doing for at least part of its life.

If Apple has taken the full manufacturing energy cost in account – chips and all – then these truly are the greenest machines on the planet and presumably use chips made by aliens as no one has a fab that approaches that level of efficiency right now and isn't expected to for a good many years. A 2005 analysis by Fujitsu yields similar ratios to those presented by Apple and does not seem to take into account the energy consumption of integrated circuits. Mobile-phone makers such as Nokia are somewhat better at taking this into account.

The motion argues for the use of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. Apple counters by saying: "the Company has already considered the GRI Guidelines when preparing certain of its reports and determined the indicators most applicable and useful in the context of the Company’s business". Or in other words, we took the bits we liked, don't expect us to adhere to the bits we didn't. That's not peculiar to Apple: most companies are working to their own definitions of sustainability. However, as Dell found with its carbon neutral claim, you do need to be careful when shouting "I am the greenest". Especially if you are, a lot more quietly, blocking moves that might help to establish that claim.