Why Energy Star compliance isn’t so important for the Mac

Ouch! According to a post on The Apple Core, not a single Mac meets the new, upgraded Energy Star requirements. This isn’t good for Apple’s environmental credentials, but actually, it may not be as bad as it seems.

In fact, as Eric D Williams, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Arizona State University has highlighted in his research, if you you look at the entire lifespan of a computer from manufacture to end of life, making it in the first place consumes over 80% of the total energy it will use. This approach to researching the environmental impact of a product – known as Life Cycle Assessment – is a much more comprehensive view of the real effects a product has.

This means that, although initiatives like Energy Star are important, manufacturing processes which use less power will contribute far more than the actual energy usage of the computer when it’s in the hands of the customer. There’s a lot of work being done in this area – after all, this is a business where margins matter, and if you can use less energy in making a PC you’ll save a lot of money.

So how does Apple’s record stand up as a manufacturer? Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct makes no mention of energy efficiency, and it tends to use the same manufacturing companies as everyone else. So it’s unlikely that Apple is either much better or much worse than anyone else, particularly as it also uses almost exactly the same components as other computer makers.

However, Apple’s bad reputation isn’t entirely undeserved – in fact, where it was once a leader in the field of environmental computing, it has actually slipped back somewhat over the past few years for two reasons.

First, there’s the issue of upgrades. As we’ve seen, manufacturing the computer in the first place is where the majority of its energy usage happens. This means that anything which extends the lifespan of the computer is hugely beneficial – replacing your machines every 2-3 years vastly increases the amount of energy it takes to meet your computing needs, compared with lifespans of 4-5 years.

Apple’s machines were once highly upgradeable, thanks to seating their processors on daughtercards which could easily be changed. This considerably extended the potential life of Mac – but at a price, to Apple, as it also meant that customers didn’t need to replace their machines to often.

The second area where Apple has effectively squandered a lead is in its engineering. The company used to have a dedicated environmental team, devoted to assisting internal designers help reduce impact on the environment. This team also tracked environmental issues and contributed to events like the IEEE’s International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, at a time when computer makers like Dell where nowhere when it came to green issues.

Now, it’s HP and Dell who are supplying the keynote speakers at events like these, and Apple’s that’s missing in action. Ironically, Dell’s environmental policy manager, Mark Newton, used to lead product-focused environmental technology programmes at Apple.

So ultimately, whether Apple meets the new Energy Star requirements or not is only a small part of the picture. What matters more is how its computers are made, and what it is doing to design them so their manufacture and usage uses less resources. In that sense, I think it would rate a solid B-, with "must try harder" appended.