North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: iGreen?

Earlier this month, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs stood up on stage during Apple’s “Let’s Rock” event, he announced a new version of the iPod Nano.

“It’s really, really beautiful,” Jobs said as an image of the new product sparked into view behind him. The crowd, somewhat understandably, went wild, applauding and hollering in plain approval of the announcement. Jobs then proceeded to describe the features of the new device, including a new oval design, and implementations of the recently announced Genuis playlist creator and internal accelerometers.

But, as much as Jobs vaunted these new supposedly spectacular features, the new iPod Nano was, undeniably, still an iPod – indeed, the very same iPod that, as of March, has sold 150 million units worldwide.

And yet, Apple and its investors still hope that the new iPod Nano and its complementary headphones will dance in the ears of millions of consumers come this Christmas. Not that you can blame them, of course: As a large, multinational corporation, Apple exists for the sole purpose of selling people things, regardless of the presence of actual necessity for their products.

But there is a key and certainly pivotal question being ignored before, during and after Mr. Jobs stands on stage and slides a new iPod out of his pocket: Assuming that everyone actually goes out and buys the newest iteration of the iPod, what exactly will they do with their old ones? Assuming that Apple doesn’t engineer their devices to explode once a new product is announced – destructive obsolesce, as I have coined it – surely the old iPods are still around somewhere. Moreover, what goes into Apple’s manufacturing of all the newer models?

These are questions that concern Greenpeace, who released version nine of “The Guide to Green Electronics” earlier this month. The report grades and ranks electronics companies based on a number of criteria, including the materials used in their manufacturing processes and the quality (or existence) of their “take back” and recycling programs. Electronics companies, according to Greenpeace, should (one), “clean up their products by eliminating hazardous substances,” (two), “take back and recycle their products responsibly once they become obsolete” and (three), “improve their corporate polices with respect to green energy.”

It works out like this: As Americans continue to consume more electronics, few of which are designed to be owned for more than a few years, the amount of E-Waste, or electronic refuse, skyrockets. According to Greenpeace, 20-50 million tons of discarded electronics – dated computers, cell phones, game consoles and, of course, iPods – are dumped in landfills each year. The severity of the situation is compounded when companies use toxic chemicals in their products that seep into water sources and harm local populations. According to Greenpeace, no recycling program can be effective and safe with the presence of harmful and toxic chemicals.

So where does Apple fall here? According to Greenpeace’s Guide, Apple earns a score of 4.1 out of 10, a commendable earning, beating out Nintendo’s dismal 0.1 but losing to frontrunner Nokia’s 7. Greenpeace approves of Apple’s phasing out of bromated flame-retardants, PVCs, and mercury; they also approve of Apple’s inclusion of arsenic-free glass in its products. Apple also fares quite well on the energy consumption front, earning a “good” rating on their compliance with Energy Star 4.0 standards, as well as California’s own regulations that took effect earlier this year.

Sounds great, right? Greenpeace releases their quarterly guide, the public takes notice, and the companies scramble to expunge their products of harmful chemicals while simultaneously drafting up plans to airlift thousands of unused electronics from consumers all across the world. Michael Bay picks up the movie rights, wins an Oscar, and promptly retires. Perfect world.

Not that Greenpeace actually expects a scenario like this to rapidly unfold-though you certainly couldn’t criticize their beaming faces if it did. Rather, as Greenpeace itself says, its goal is to get “the entire electronics industry to take responsibility for the entire lifestyle of their products.” By airing out the dirty – or toxic?- laundry of electronics companies, Greenpeace hopes to start a wave of support leaning in the environment’s favor.

Admittedly, however, the chances of that happening are slim, at least without the inclusion of the vital concept of the bottom line. Simply put, not one company-not Apple, not Nintendo, and not Nokia – is going to respond to Greenpeace’s report without a significant financial incentive. If companies can’t turn interest in environmentally friendly products into profit, there is no reason for them to pay it any mind. That’s just one of the realities of running a multinational corporation – profit is supreme.

The larger issue is that it’s just really tough to reconcile capitalism with environmentalism. As one side screams sell, compete and profit, the other (less audibly) howls conserve, sustain, and improve. Ideally, a corporation could create the perfect synthesis of the two, touting a new product as both environmentally safe and growlingly stylish. But, again, for that to happen, there would need to be a significant amount of momentum pushing corporations in that direction.

But it’s a nice thought. Imagine Apple and Microsoft and Dell spearheading bona fide, socially responsible, “green electronics campaigns.” There would be an air of American possibility, a universal feeling that the world as we know it can be saved from the dystopian version of itself that it seems to be careening towards. If only corporations thought less about the green in their pockets and more about the green in the fields. That would be awesome.

(Originally published 24 September 2008 in The Amherst Student)

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