Apple is the largest company on Earth by market cap, and its success is derived from selling brand-new high-end smartphones consistently month after month. At the peak of its iPhone business, back in 2015, Apple sold a staggering 231.5 million smartphones. Though sales have begun to slow, that one device alone still accounts for more than 50 percent of Apple’s entire business. The company’s second quarter earnings results for 2017, reported on Tuesday, showed a quarterly profit of $8.7 billion, a majority of which came from the sale of 41 million iPhones.
But one of the reasons Apple can sell so many new devices is that we keep tossing aside our old ones, either because the battery life has grown worse or a new, more advanced model just came out. Advocacy groups say this is by design, and that companies like Apple are keeping supposedly neutral standards bodies from implementing environmentally friendly measures that could increase device longevity and cut down on the number of new units manufactured.
Apple isn’t alone here, but the iPhone has become emblematic of this mindset and what environmental groups consider excessive wastefulness. The company makes it difficult to repair its products by using proprietary screws, unibody enclosures, and other manufacturing and design techniques that make it so only Apple or computer repair experts can easily take them apart. The company also makes it notoriously difficult to replace its batteries, by gluing them to other components and burying them beneath layers of complex, sensitive parts. Instead, Apple incentivizes consumers to trade in or discard models that are just 18–24 months old for newer ones.
A new report, out today from trade group the Repair Association, details how the tech industry, through practices like fighting repairability, has undermined and openly combated green technology standards that would cut down on manufacturing waste. Authored by Repair Association board member Mark Schaffer, who runs an environmental consultancy, the report lays out how Apple, HP, and other manufacturers use their outsized influence over the groups who regulate the manufacturing of electronic devices. These companies, which the report says effectively get to decide how their environmental practices are regulated, then get to slap gold certification labels on their products, all while ignoring pressing issues like repairability and reusability.
“What’s happening internally at these companies is the environment team is getting overruled,” says Kyle Wiens, the CEO of teardown company iFixit and a board member of the Repair Association. “Ostensibly, it’s their job to make the company more environmentally friendly. Practically, the company is telling the environment team, ‘Make sure we’re not getting constrained in any way.’ Now you’ve got the fox guarding the henhouse.”
It’s important to note that these are not government-enforced regulations. The first ever environmental standards for electronics were established in 2004 through an Environmental Protection Agency-funded effort. However, that resulted in the establishment of a standard by the existing Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which is a professional association made of up not of government regulators, but academics, nonprofits, and a large number of corporate representatives with corporate interests in mind.
From there, the process has evolved to include other standards boards organized under a third-party group known as the Green Electronics Council, which itself oversees the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT decides when a company’s products can be deemed bronze, silver, or gold certified, and it takes input from across the industry on what those tiers actually mean and what new criteria should be included over time. It’s that process that Schaffer says tech companies like Apple and others have diluted to protect their businesses at the expense of the environment.
Apple, in a statement given to The Verge, said it is continuously working to improve sustainability efforts, but the company remains committed to keeping tight control over how its products are made and repaired. “Highly-integrated design allows us to make products that are not only beautiful, thin and powerful, but also durable, so they can last for many years,” the company said. “When repairs are needed, authorized providers can ensure the quality, safety, and security of repairs for customers. And when products do reach end of life, Apple takes responsibility for recycling them safely and responsibly.” The company adds that it’s continuing to invest in environmentally friendly recycling efforts, like its Liam bot for disassembling iPhones, as well as “pioneering a closed loop supply chain where products are made using only renewable resources or recycled material to reduce the need to mine materials from the earth.”
Still, Apple feels that it’s doing enough, and many members of the tech industry feel the same about their own practices. Wiens and his company iFixit have a say in the standards process that would push the industry to go further, with one vote on these boards alongside other NGOs and environmental advocacy groups. However, as Schaffer’s report makes clear, electronics makers like Apple and others dominate these discussions with more voting power and a larger presence. In the case of the most recent IEEE server standard vote, electronics manufacturers represented 41 percent of the group, the largest of any category. Third-party industries represented 28 percent, while academia and public advocacy each represented just 7 percent of the board. (The remaining amount belongs to what are labeled as “general interest” groups.) If any stipulation arises that may hurt the manufacturers’ businesses, they simply vote it down as a unified block, according to the report.
“I’m no longer involved in the meetings and voting because it’s just a waste of my time,” says Sarah Westervelt, a policy director at the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit dedicated to combating the export of toxic waste from electronics manufacturing to developing countries. “EPEAT has lost its original goal of being a driver for redesign.” Westervelt, who spend hundreds of hours with other NGO members to draft recommendations for EPEAT, says that manufacturers, by their voting power, have weakened the standards by making the gold tier too easy to achieve. “I think there’s a real opportunity here,” she adds. “I believe that whoever has the authority and the vision for governing EPEAT needs to try and create a new set of parameters for participants.” She points out that, at a certain point, the tech industry’s chemical suppliers were enlisting family members to pay for IEEE memberships to help vote down new environmental measures.
Much of the problem arises from the simple fact that corporate representatives, on company payroll, are sent only to prevent unnecessary costs. “We sit across the table at these standards development meetings, and we can argue,” Wiens says of the process. “And they [Apple] say things like batteries shouldn’t be replaced by the user, and they say our authorized service network can take care of that.” But Wiens points out that there’s no feasible way for Apple Stores, of which there are less than 500 worldwide, can serve the hundreds of millions of iPhone owners out there. Apple has also historically made it difficult and prohibitively expensive for users to get their screens repaired, only last year dropping the price from $99, with AppleCare+ insurance, to $29. Not until June of this year did Apple agree to provide its proprietary screen repair machines to third-party service centers.
A central issue, Schaffer argues in his report, is that tech companies don’t want more demanding standards, because that would mean losing out on lucrative contracts with local, state, and federal governments. These governmental organizations require that products purchased for use in schools and public departments meet the highest green certification standard under EPEAT. Having new, more stringent standards means running the risk of a new product labelled with a less-than-perfect certification, which could lead to a loss of big contracts. “The US federal government is the largest purchaser of consumer electronics,” Wiens says, “so if you’re on the list, that determines whether the government can buy the device.”
In his report, Schaffer points to a controversial episode involving the 2012 Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The product, one of the hardest-to-repair laptops ever made at the time, highlighted how the tech industry could effectively exploit the standards boards to push a product to gold certification without changing how it was designed.
“Historically, the MacBook Pro line had been modular, repairable, and upgradeable. The 2012 Retina MacBook Pro, however, shipped with a proprietary SSD, non-upgradeable RAM, and a glued-down lithium-ion battery,” Schaffer writes. Yet, after Apple appealed and was able to convince the standards board to adjust the language around what elements made a product “upgradeable,” the laptop was marked with an EPEAT “Gold” rating. That action “effectively gutted the modularity criteria in the standard — and the language re-interpretation made it much easier for products to achieve a ‘Gold’ rating — whether they’re ‘green’ products or not,” Schaffer writes. Now, he adds, tech companies are fighting to keep that requirements unchanged so that every new product can be easily labeled environmentally friendly without companies having to alter any aspect of the design or manufacturing process.
Stricter standards — like making batteries easily removable and replaceable — could also translate to fewer sales of new devices if consumers hold onto them for longer, or if consumers seek out refurbished and second-hand devices more frequently. This is precisely why the tech industry is fighting what are known as “right to repair” laws, which seek to regulate the ability for consumers to take apart, repair, and modify products they purchase. For the smartphone industry, right to repair laws could have a huge environmental impact, Wiens says, by increasing the longevity of devices.
What happens to our devices after they’ve outlived their shortening life spans — or at the Chinese manufacturing plants where they’re produced — is often lost on the typical US smartphone owner. Yet the growing amount of e-waste is an environmental crisis that nonprofit organizations and environmental groups say the tech industry is actively overlooking.
“Toxic chemicals are mostly not in the products anymore. The product is not going to cause much harm unless you set it on fire,” Wiens says. “All of the environmental damage being done now is in the manufacturing side.” But it’s difficult to regulate in a standard how devices are made overseas, in places like China. So environmental groups have instead focused on increasing a device’s longevity. “You want to minimize the harm of manufacturing, by making as few things as possible,” Wiens adds.
If batteries were more easily replaceable, the logic goes, users would feel less pressure to upgrade to a new device and feed the wasteful electronics manufacturing machine. However, “you can be gold certified and still have a battery that is glued into the device,” Wiens said. “The manufacturers have a choice: they can design an environmentally friendly, better phone, or they can concentrate their efforts on making sure the standards are toothless and do whatever they want.”
“Manufacturers tend to vote in favor of their corporate interests, which are often at odds with environmental interests,” Schaffer writes in his conclusion. “With manufacturers standing in the way, it takes years to pass even weak standards. There is little room for negotiation, scant opportunity for progress, and no path forward under the consensus-based standards paradigm. It’s time for oversight groups or regulatory bodies to step in and re-craft the development process. No single group should be able to control voting and water down the standards.”