Does Apple really have the greenest notebooks?

Apple and other PC makers are overdoing it when they flash their EPEAT Gold to prove they're green

As more organizations worldwide come to see the value of investing in eco-friendlier hardware, PC vendors are jockeying for the right to lay claim to the greenest wares. Proving a central weapon in this battle is the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) registry. Plenty of companies are finding the tool invaluable for finding green machines that meet their particular needs. The problem is, some vendors -- intentionally or otherwise -- might be abusing the system to make themselves and their wares look greener.

EPEAT is a free tool that helps consumers compare computers and monitors based on their environmental impact. In order to make it into the registry and earn a rating of Bronze, a monitor or computer must meet 23 required criteria. Products that meet a certain percentage of the 28 optional criteria can earn the better rating of Silver -- or the coveted Gold.

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Earlier this month, Apple registered 10 MacBooks in the EPEAT registry. All are Gold rated. Two meet 21 of the optional criteria; the other eight meet 22 of the optional criteria. This gave Apple a total of 11 Gold-rated MacBooks -- and the chutzpah to claim that the MacBook line is "the world's greenest family of notebooks."

In turn, Dell (which aspires to be "the greenest technology company on the planet") accused Apple of being "misleading" in its advertising of the MacBook. In response, the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus investigated the complaint. Ultimately, NAD opined that Apple should modify its "world's greenest family of notebooks" claim "to make clearer that the basis of comparison is between all MacBooks to all notebooks made by a given competitor" and to "avoid the reference to 'world's greenest' given the potential for overstatement."

NAD did pay Apple is compliment, however: "While other manufacturers may have subcategories of lines with similar ratings, none has comparable high ratings for all of the notebooks it produces."

However, NAD did note that notebooks, such as the Toshiba Protege, "have a higher ['greener'] EPEAT rating than MacBooks."

Straight to the source
Frankly, I found NAD's opinion rather confusing, so decided to go straight to the source: the EPEAT registry. There I discovered some interesting findings that arguably contradict Apple's claim.

Here, I should better explain the EPEAT rating system. As I mentioned, to attain a Bronze EPEAT rating, a product must meet the 23 required EPEAT criteria; that includes compliance with Energy Star as well as the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (ROHS). On top of those required criteria, there are 28 optional ones. These take into account a variety of environmental considerations: what toxic materials a product contains; how many recycled materials it contains; how easy it is to upgrade and to recycle; what sort of packing it comes with; and so forth.

Now then: Prior to NAD's ruling, Toshiba had 15 Protege notebooks registered with EPEAT. Four of the systems have 23 optional EPEAT points; the other 11 have 22 optional EPEAT points, the same number the various MacBooks had earned. So how could Apple have rightly claimed the MacBook to be the greenest computer line, when the Protege line was arguably as green, if not greener?

Second, Toshiba also had notebooks from its Satellite line registered with EPEAT before Apple had added its new MacBooks to the registry. Of those 22 Satellites, 16 had earned 22 optional EPEAT points; the other six Satellites had earned 21 optional EPEAT points. Furthermore, after NAD laid down its judgment regarding Apple, Toshiba added another 20 Gold-rated notebooks to the EPEAT registry. Of those 20 new machines, 19 were in the Satellite family. Seven met 23 of the optional EPEAT criteria; the other 12 met 22 of the optional EPEAT criteria. The addition of these new systems pushed the total number of Gold-rated notebooks in the Toshiba Satellite line from 21 to 41. That makes for a pretty darn green line of notebooks.

All in all, Toshiba offers 78 of the 288 EPEAT Gold-rated notebooks in the EPEAT registry, more than any other vendor. While I'm at it, care to take a guess who has the second most? If you guessed Dell or HP, you're wrong. It's Sony, with 59. There are 37 under the HP and/or Compaq label. Apple, Asustek, and Samsung each have 11. Dell and Lenovo have 10. Fujitsu has 1.

Does this mean that the MacBook is, in fact, not the greenest notebook family on the planet? I think Apple would be hard-pressed to demonstrably prove its MacBooks are "the greenest on the planet" and should consider toning down its marketing.

Does it mean that Toshiba is the maker of the greenest notebook computers on the planet? After all, Toshiba has the most Gold-rated machines listed in the EPEAT registry. Well, perhaps not. Here's where we wade more deeply into the potential problems with putting too much stock in EPEAT ratings and using the registry as the end-all measurement tool for PC and monitor greenness.

Repeat and EPEAT
One of the problems with the EPEAT system is it seems possible for a vendor to game the system -- particularly because vendors are responsible for reporting their products. The Green Electronics Council, or GEC, merely maintains the registry and performs spot-checks on occasion to ensure vendors are being honest.

For example, I think it's plausible that a vendor might offer multiple configurations of the same computer or monitor, each one with minute differences that have no real impact on the machine's overall "greeness." The vendor could give each system a slightly different name, then stuff them all into the registry.

As a potential case -- and this is mere speculation, not an accusation -- Toshiba, as I noted, added 20 new Gold-rated notebooks to the EPEAT registry in the past couple of weeks. They have names such as: Satellite A500 PSAP0U, Satellite A500 PSPA3U, Satellite L550 PSLN8U, Satellite L550 PSLP0U, Satellite P500 PSPE0U, Satellite P500 PSPE8U, and so on. What's the difference between a Satellite A500 PSAP0U and a Satellite A500 PSPA3U? Toshiba's not alone in this; other vendors such as Sony, HP, Panasonic, and Samsung do it as well.

Additionally, it appears to be up to a vendor to decide when a listing on EPEAT should be archived (that is, removed from the active list of offerings). Some companies, such as HP and Panasonic, have products going back to the middle of 2006. It's not entirely clear to me what the criteria are to keep a product "active" on the list. Does the company still need to sell it? Support it? Have spare parts for it in a warehouse?

What this all adds up to is, the opportunity for a vendor to cram EPEAT full of machines, then brag that it has the most Gold-rated notebooks/PCs/whatever in the world. It may sounds impressive, but does it necessarily prove anything?

What does green mean to me?
The EPEAT system has other flaws that could mislead consumers into thinking certain machines are greener -- or less green -- than they really are. First, the ratings criteria don't take into account all conceivable green features, such as built-in power management features, the absence of energy-drawing fans, or an overall reduction in materials used.

Second, by meeting criteria of questionable green value, products can earn enough points to achieve Gold status. One example I've cited in the past: Machines can earn additional points if they're compatible with an alternative energy charger -- even if the only charger available happens to be a $329 solar-powered charger that weighs 22 pounds.

I should stress, at this point, that my intent is not to outright disparage and dismiss EPEAT; rather, I think it's an invaluable tool, overall, in helping to select a green computer or monitor for any organization. It's no surprise to me, in fact, that some companies and governmental bodies will purchase only systems that are EPEAT rated.

The important thing to remember, though, is that if you truly care about purchasing computers and monitors that meet particular green criteria, you should consider using the advanced search option on EPEAT. This will allow you to limit search results to only machines that meet your particular requirements. (Unfortunately, EPEAT doesn't let you search the registry based on system specs, just environmental criteria and, to a degree, monitor size.)

As a little experiment to demonstrate the value of EPEAT, I decided to browse the system for notebooks that met 18 specific criteria that I would deem important were I choosing systems for my business. Specifically, I wanted to see only systems that contained no intentionally added mercury (in light sources); cadmium; lead (in certain applications); or hexavalent chromium. I also wanted the large plastic parts to be free of certain flame retardents and PVC. The notebook battery had to be free of lead, cadmium, and mercury.

Additionally, I wanted only machines built for easy disassembly and reuse. In EPEAT terms, that means computers that contain a reduced number of plastic material types. I wanted the plastic parts to be marked and easy to separate by type. I also wanted systems containing no molded or glued-in metal -- or else metal that was easy to remove. Finally, I wanted the machine's parts to be, at a minimum, 90 percent reusable or recyclable.

In terms of product longevity, I wanted the notebooks that came up in my search to have a modular design, meaning that if I needed to replace or upgrade a part, I could do so easily on-site. Additionally, I opted for the requirement that the notebook vendor make available replacement parts (thus ensuring I could replace a damaged component easily).

Furthermore, I only wanted machines from vendors that audited their recycling vendors. My reasoning: When I send a machine back to a vendor for recycling, I want to be confident it will be disposed of properly and securely, both for the sake of the environment and my personal data.

Finally, for the sake of the planet, I wanted only machines that come in packaging that's at least 90 percent recyclable and made from a minimum of postconsumer materials. Additionally, I only wanted a machine that came from a vendor offering a packaging take-back program. That would save my employees the trouble of cleaning up a mess of packaging on the loading dock while (presumably) ensuring the materials end up recycled or reused.

I also restricted the search to machines with a screen size between 15 and 22 inches.

This search yielded 12 results in all, all of which were Gold-rated machines. Of that 12, six were from Apple, three were from Sony, and three were from Asustek. Notably, a lot of vendors fail to include screen size data when they register their products, so it's entirely likely a heap of machines weren't included in my final results.

All in all, the lesson here is that EPEAT can be an invaluable tool for a company looking to equip its employees with eco-friendly hardware. Just be wary of any vendor who claims that they're the "greenest" because they have the most products in the registry, the highest number of Gold-rated products, or the like. It doesn't matter so much what green means to them as what green means to you.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.