Apple-EPEAT dustup points to 'ultra' green challenges

EPEAT needs to reassess its green registry criteria as more hardware vendors embrace ultrathin laptop designs

Just over a week ago, Apple yanked all its products from the EPEAT registry with little explanation. The reportedly hard-to-disassemble MacBook Pro with Retina display appeared to be at the center of the controversy, though neither Apple nor EPEAT said as much.

There was plenty of hand-wringing and complaining and fretting over Apple's commitment to the environment, and within a week Apple made a 180-degree turn, putting all its products back on the registry -- including the Retina MacBook. The company also reaffirmed its commitment to the environment and to EPEAT.

Apple's green again and all's well with the world, right?

It might not be quite that cut and dried. This latest kerfuffle between EPEAT and Apple points to the ongoing challenge of developing and maintaining meaningful criteria for assessing computer's eco-friendliness. They need to be stringent enough to be of value to green-conscious businesses and consumers -- but not so tough as to drive away vendors. This little dustup not only thrusted Apple into the spotlight but also EPEAT, as it has to contend with developing green criteria for newest wave of ultrathin machines.

The way the EPEAT registry works is a hardware maker lists a product, affirming it meets a bare minimum of required criteria, along with any number of optional criteria. That listing is then reviewed by an independent product verification committee to confirm it deserves the score the vendor claims; just because a company registers a product doesn't mean it's compliant.

The EPEAT jury will be out for a while as to whether the Retina MacBook deserves its Gold rating. For the time being, the evidence frankly doesn't look good for Apple, and here's why: Among the required criteria for EPEAT, the product must be upgradable [PDF] (at least the optical drives, memory, hard drive, and cards) with common tools. The green rationale: A person should be able to easily add more memory or a new GPU or what have you without needing to waste time and resources on transporting the machine to a specific destination or bringing in a qualified technician. Again, this is a requirement.

Yet according to an in-depth breakdown by iFixIt, a site that specializes in disassembling machines, the Retina MacBook requires a special screwdriver to access the machines internals; its RAM is soldered to the logic board and can't be upgraded beyond 16GB; and the proprietary solid-state drive isn't upgradable.

How to explain this discrepancy between iFixIt's findings and Apple's claims? That question is likely better left to folks with the right tools and know-how to crack open and dive into both the Retina MacBook and EPEAT's expansive documentation.

But the debacle points to imminent changes to the EPEAT criteria -- which necessarily have evolved over the years to stay in step with technology's evolution. In response to InfoWorld's request for comment, EPEAT's Sarah O'Brien said, "Given the recent speculation about the retina display products and the questions it raises about ultralight/ultrathin laptops, we expect to conduct surveillance and clarify the status of this type of product with regard to a number of criteria."

Ultralight and ultrathin laptops are unquestionably different beasts than standard laptops, with more delicate parts. They're understandably tougher to design so that they comply both with the minute form-factor requirements and EPEAT requirements such as being easy to open and upgrade with standard tools. In fact, there aren't many Ultrabooks listed on the EPEAT registry. Among the exceptions are a couple of systems from Fujitsu, including the Lifebook U772 Ultrabook, which was listed as Gold last month, and the UH572 Ultrabook, registered as Silver just yesterday. Hewlett-Packard also has some Ultrabooks on the registry, including the Envy Spectre XT, registered as Gold last month. (Again, just because they're listed doesn't mean they meet EPEAT criteria until they're verified.)

For Apple's part, the company initially said it was pulling out of EPEAT because its "design direction was no longer consistent with the EPEAT requirements." When Apple reenlisted with the registry, the company's senior vice president of hardware engineering Bob Mansfeld wrote that the company has gone above and beyond what competitors have done to embrace green practices, citing its practice of comprehensively reporting the greenhouse gas emissions associated with every product it makes and of exceeding the Energy Star standards for energy efficiency: "We think the [EPEAT registry] could be a much stronger force for protecting the environment if it were upgraded to include advancements like these."

EPEAT has its work cut out for it as it strives to fulfill its mission while keeping shareholders happy and involved. We won't see new criteria emerge overnight. "Unfortunately these are complex questions -- relating to both the precise wording of the standard and technical aspects of the products -- and won't be resolved as fast as the media cycle. But we are moving forward to resolve them," O'Brien told InfoWorld.

This story, "Apple-EPEAT dustup points to 'ultra' green challenges," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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