Apple quits U.S. Chamber of Commerce over views on carbon regs

Bold move highlights struggle -- and potential synergy -- between business and environmental demands

Apple, which once suffered bruising allegations of having a poor environmental track record, continues to prove itself a model eco-steward among high-tech companies, most recently by quitting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the group's stance on global warming.

Apple's resignation comes shortly after the group called for a public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change, a response to a proposed EPA plan that would allow the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Likely interpreting the Chamber's request as a stalling tactic, Apple sent a letter of resignation stating that it "supports regulating greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions" and that "it is frustrating to find the Chamber at odds with us in this effort."

[ Industry experts recommend that datacenter operators start preparing now for carbon regulations. | Companies aren't acting quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions, the Carbon Disclosure Project warns. ]

The company's move will certainly draw attention to the struggle between the business world and environmentalists over carbon regulations. Companies -- including those operating large datacenters -- are understandably leery of environmental laws curbing GHG emissions. They may have to invest resources in measuring, reporting, and reducing emissions. They may face a spike in energy costs. They may have to pour money into carbon-cutting measures, such as costly building and equipment upgrades. Moreover, companies fear that carbon regulations will give a competitive edge to business rivals based in countries that don't have similar laws.

At the same time, however, Apple's move draws more attention to its own environmental efforts -- and to the fact a company can flourish while going above and beyond the call of duty to protect the planet and human health. Contrary to past accusations from Greenpeace and investors that the company falls short on the green front, Apple is a leader among tech companies in the environmental realm.

For example, Apple has earned a bounty of Gold EPEAT ratings for its line of computers (though past claims of having the "greenest notebooks" are questionable). Landing EPEAT Gold is no easy feat; it requires careful product design and diligent supply-chain management. It means that Apple designs machines in such a way that they are easy to upgrade, dismantle, and recycle. It means Apple engineers its machines and batteries to use as little power as possible. The company selects components that contain little to no trace of particular harmful substances, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. Notably, Apple (along with hardware vendors Sony Ericsson and Seagate) this week earned recognition from environmental organizations CheSec and Clean Production Action for its efforts to rid its products of harmful chemicals. Read the report, "Greening Consumer Products" [PDF].

Apple could easily cut corners here and save a few bucks in the process, at least in the short term. Then again, these environmental measures are becoming increasingly alluring to customers, even if it means a slightly higher price tag.

[ Organizations are reporting that green IT premiums are worth the cost. ]

Apple doesn't limit its environmental efforts to greening its products and supply chain, either. Like a growing number of companies, Apple is working to reduce its carbon footprint and the amounts of energy, water, and other resources it wastes. Among its efforts, the company says it has retrofitted its lighting, installed motion-detection sensors, and upgraded its heating and cooling systems.

Moreover, the company has gone so far as to calculate and report what it calls its "entire carbon footprint," which includes emissions generated by its products. This takes into account "what happens when we design them, what happens when we make them, and what happens when you take them home and use them," according to Apple's environmental Web page.

[ Other companies are expanding the way they measure their carbon footprint -- such as on a per-product basis. ]

Apple isn't the only high-tech vendor embracing greener practices. Companies such as Dell, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Toshiba, Xerox, and others have taken various steps to be better environmental stewards, from the supply chain to the datacenter to the print room to the desktop and beyond. In doing so, they've reaped savings by cutting waste, while reducing their adverse impact on the environment.

However, Apple (not to mention PG&E, Nike, and a few other companies) does deserve recognition for standing by the courage of its environmental convictions and effectively spitting in the eye of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Hopefully more organizations will follow suit, putting bold action behind their words.