MacBook Air vs. ThinkPad X300: Which is greener?

Imagine, if you will, that you're a sustainability-minded individual charged with procuring eco-friendly PCs for your company's workforce. You hop on over to the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) Web site, where you can find a searchable listing of machines with ratings of Bronze, Silver, and Gold to reflect their varying levels of greenness. It may be tempting to go straight for the Gold,

Imagine, if you will, that you're a sustainability-minded individual charged with procuring eco-friendly PCs for your company's workforce. You hop on over to the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) Web site, where you can find a searchable listing of machines with ratings of Bronze, Silver, and Gold to reflect their varying levels of greenness.

It may be tempting to go straight for the Gold, drawing on the assumption that the category represents the eco-friendliest of the bunch. You might take a moment, however, to probe more deeply as to just what separates a top-tiered machine from a silver-stamped competitor. As I learned this week by comparing the EPEAT standings of Apple and Lenovo's respective, recently released ultra-thin notebooks, a vendor can reap a couple of precious points to boost a product's rating a full color grade by meeting criteria that arguably don't translate into meaningful green benefits for the buyer.

As a bit of background, Apple stirred up some excitement at the MacWorld show with the unveiling of the MacBook Air, a remarkably slender laptop weighing in at a mere three pounds. Just this week, Lenovo answered back with a slightly lighter yet thicker model (one that actually includes a built-in CD/DVD drive, optionally) dubbed the ThinkPad X300.

Beyond the general cool factor of these lean machines (and the back relief they provide weary road warriors), both offer green advantages over rival notebooks. Both boast low-power processors and are Energy Star 4.0 compliant. They not only use fewer materials, thanks to their smaller form factors, but they both exceed the restrictions on dangerous materials set out in the European Union's RoHS (Restriction on the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive. Both are designed for easy disassembling for end-of-life management. Yet the ThinkPad has Gold EPEAT status and the MacBook Air has Silver. Why the difference?

The 85-pound charger

First, it helps to understand how the EPEAT ranking works. In order for any piece of hardware to achieve Bronze status, it must meet a full set of 23 required criteria. On top of those requirements, EPEAT has 28 optional criteria. If a product boasts at least 50 percent of the green options (14 or more), it earns Silver status. Seventy-five percent or higher (21-plus) brings home the gold. (Vendors are responsible for self-reporting their products, by the way. The Green Electronics Council, or GEC, maintains the registry and performs spot-checks on occasion to ensure vendors are being honest.)

As it turns out, Lenovo's ThinkPad earns 21 optional points, earning it a Gold rating; the MacBook Air has 19 optional points, putting it squarely in the Silver camp. At first glance, a two-point difference might suggest that Lenovo simply went the extra green mile to make its offering that much more eco-friendly. But you may think differently if you consider how Lenovo earned them.

First, Lenovo meets the optional EPEAT criterion of making available a "renewable energy accessory": "[The covered product] shall have a commercially available accessory for powering the product that uses renewable energy." That certainly sounds eco-friendly. But for U.S. and Canadian customers, that accessory turns out to be a $1,200 85.5-pound solar generator/panel package, the Solar PowerPac II, offered by a partner company called Advanced Energy Group.

Notably, Lenovo also offers, through AEC, the Solar PowerPac Euro, which is available only in European countries. It's slightly more practical than the Solar PowerBehemoth, weighing in at a mere 14.9 pounds with a price tag of $499. But -- no disrespect to AEC for its product line -- neither of these "renewable energy accessories" strike me as particularly practical for the vast majority of users. Nevertheless, by the EPEAT standard, it makes Lenovo's ThinkPad one point "greener" than the MacBook Air.

Lenovo's not the only company offering the AEC's solar-power chargers as a renewable energy accessory; HP, for example, has received EPEAT Gold status for products by offering the same gear.

Lenovo's second extra point comes from the fact that it, unlike Apple, compiles a corporate report based on the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative). Developed under the auspices of the United Nations, the GRI provides a standardized, global reporting framework "for publicly disclosing an organization’s economic, environmental, and social performance," according to the non-profit organization.

Anyone familiar with Apple's reputation for secrecy shouldn't be surprised to learn that the company doesn't deliver a GRI report. Apple has faced its share of slings and arrows from groups such as Greenpeace for refusing to openly disclose its sustainability practices -- even though Apple has demonstrated support for eco-friendly initiatives. Does Apple's decision not to embrace GRI mean the MacBook Air is less green than the ThinkPad? I'm not convinced.

A work in progress

I called on the vendor-neutral Green Electronics Council to weigh in on the subject. Again, the GEC is charged only with managing the EPEAT registry and verification system, not with developing and updating the criteria. The latter task falls on the shoulders of the subscribing members of EPEAT, which includes environmental advocates, private and public purchasers, manufacturers, recyclers, environmental-purchasing specialists, and researchers.

The GEC's outreach director Sarah O'Brien provided some informative responses. "The two points you mention -- the renewable energy accessory and the GRI reporting -- both fall into the 'stretching the envelope' category," she writes. "When stakeholders developed the standard, they wanted to include points that laid down direction for future efforts-- in order to not just reward immediate/accessible design improvements (which the bulk of the criteria do), but also to reward innovation leading to future progress. So while the immediate environmental benefit of these two products may not be significantly different because of the two criteria you mention, the future direction of the market may well be."

Shedding light on the thinking behind the GRI criterion, O'Brien writes, "Stakeholders (in particular purchasers, who want to be able to fairly compare company environmental performance) felt that this step toward consistency and support for global reporting protocols was important and should be rewarded."

O'Brien notes that the stakeholders behind EPEAT always have the freedom to propose and adopt changes to the criteria -- and acknowledges that there's always room for improvement. "Keep in mind also that the EPEAT standard is still in its shakedown stages -- as subscribers begin to meet some of the criteria that have been more of a stretch, we are all discovering ways that the criteria language should be made more precise or clarified to eliminate loopholes," she says.

In the context of the "available renewable energy accessory," for example, "this may be an instance where language which narrows the criterion down to clarify what 'available' means -- more reasonable pricing or size -- will be merited going forward," she writes.

My two cents on the matter: EPEAT provides an invaluable tool for helping companies and individuals select the eco-friendliest of electronic products. Stakeholders obviously put a lot of thought into developing the criteria, which covers a broad range of environmental considerations: materials used in the product, materials used to package the product, power consumption, and many, many others. As O'Brien notes, though, the standard is still young. It will benefit from ongoing tweaking to ensure that products are properly and fairly rated in a manner to reflect meaningful green benefits that they bring to buyers.

In the meantime, if you're shopping for a green machine, or a fleet of them for your workforce, take a moment to study differences among products. A shinier metallic distinction or a higher price tag doesn't necessarily mean it's a significantly greener product.

Related articles:

Review: MacBook Air is light as, well, air

Lenovo unveils ultra-thin ThinkPad X300 laptop
Green HP rp5700 desktop strikes EPEAT gold

Ted Samson is a senior analyst at InfoWorld and author of the Sustainable IT blog. Subscribe to his free weekly Green Tech newsletter.

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