Apple finds silver lining in verdict on green claims

An advertising watchdog concluded Apple may have misled consumers but still meets high standards

Apple on Friday claimed victory in an environmental laptop tiff with Dell, which earlier complained that Apple was misleading buyers by calling its laptops "the world's greenest family of notebooks."

Dell had filed a complaint with the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, saying Apple's use of the phrase was a "broad superiority claim" against all manufacturers' laptops.

NAD investigated the advertised tagline and implied claims that Apple's laptops were "greener" than other brands.

After the investigation, NAD on Thursday said that consumers could be misled by Apple's claims, which were used in Internet and TV advertisements.

NAD suggested that Apple change the green tagline in advertisements to "avoid overstatement," which otherwise could cause confusion among buyers, who might think MacBooks are superior to other laptops.

NAD evaluated Apple's MacBooks based on the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) rating, a recognized standard that helps consumers compare PCs based on their environmental impact.

NAD stated that Apple has high EPEAT ratings across its entire line of laptops, while no other manufacturer has "comparable high ratings for all of the notebooks it produces."

Apple "elected to only produce computer notebooks that meet the highest EPEAT ratings," NAD said in its Thursday ruling.

However, NAD found that certain laptop brands, such as Toshiba's Portege line, had a higher EPEAT rating than MacBooks.

Apple did not comment on whether it would make changes based on NAD's recommendations. However, a company spokeswoman said the recommendations confirm Apple's commitment to being green.

"The NAD's ruling is a clear victory for Apple. The case challenged our claim to the 'world's greenest family of notebooks,' and NAD has confirmed that MacBooks are in fact the world's greenest notebook computers when compared to other manufacturers' product lines as a whole," the spokeswoman said.

Dell did not respond to a request for comment.

Nonprofit environmental groups have backed Apple's efforts to reduce the environmental impact of its PCs.

Greenpeace International in 2007 applauded Apple's commitment to phase out by 2008 the use on components and circuit boards of chemicals that could affect human health. Those chemicals included brominated fire retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

"That beats Dell and other computer manufacturers' pledge to phase them out by 2009," Greenpeace said at the time. Greenpeace also praised Apple's "green" advertising campaign that highlighted the reduced environmental impact of its PCs.

Apple also gained ground in Greenpeace's ranking of green electronics companies issued in March this year, while competitors including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo lost points.

The list grades top consumer electronics and IT companies based on their environmental efforts and recycling efforts, as well as the power consumption and chemical content in their products.

Apple was perhaps the earliest PC maker to commit itself to reducing the environmental impact of its products, said Sarah Westervelt, a spokeswoman for the Basel Action Network, an environmental nonprofit. But no matter how green they are, laptops from all manufacturers will continue to have toxins, she said.

Some circuit boards may have traces of lead and other harmful toxins, while batteries have chemicals such as cadmium that could be dangerous to health.

Dell and Apple are involved in a pointless slinging match, because green is an ambiguous concept, said Michael Kanellos, senior analyst and editor-in-chief at analyst firm GreenTech Media.

It is hard to measure the entire environmental impact of products, he said. For example, the environmental impact of a laptop could involve the amount of fuel used to ship laptops and related components.

But using generic metrics such as power consumption, the overall impact of the laptops on the environment is relatively small, Kanellos said.

Computers use about 1 per cent of the power consumed in homes, while lights consume 26 per cent, Kanellos said, citing 2006 statistics from the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University. In offices, computers make up 4 per cent of power consumption, compared with 25 per cent for lights.

Nevertheless, Dell and Apple realize that efforts are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts associated with laptops, Kanellos said. Dell is advertising "green" as a way to cut costs for the company and its customers, while Apple is using it as a "lifestyle" term to sell products like the iPhone and Mac computers.

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