Gore needs a greener Apple

Environmental groups tell Al Gore to push the computer maker to improve its practices and limit its impact on the environment. Fortune's Marc Gunther reports.

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Why would Al Gore, America's best-known environmentalist and a member of the board of directors of Apple, oppose shareholder resolutions that ask the computer maker to become more green?

That's what Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, the National Environmental Trust and the Computer TakeBack Campaign want to know.

They are among about 70 groups that signed a letter to Gore asking the former vice president to use his clout as a director to get Apple to become responsible for its environmental impact. They charge that Apple (Charts) lags behind rivals Dell (Charts) and Hewlett Packard (Charts) when it comes to recycling computers and eliminating toxic chemicals from its laptops, desktops and other electronic devices.

They say Apple also lags Dell and HP in reporting on environmental and social issues - and that the company is a lot less willing to talk about these issues with activist groups.

Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, who has worked for years with HP and Dell, says: "Apple just won't deal with stakeholders, period. They have a completely different attitude from even Wal-Mart (Charts) at this point. They don't want anyone to tell them anything, and they won't agree to benchmarking of what they are doing."

Is this fair to Apple? How about to Gore, who has been a director of the company since 2003?

The criticisms of Apple strike me, for the most part, as well founded. Its recycling program doesn't measure up to Dell's. Dell will take back, at no charge, any of its electronics, at any time. Apple puts up barriers. It won't take back old Apples unless a customer's buying a new one. The customer has to return the old one within 30 days. You can't bring back your old computers to Apple stores. (They will take back iPods.)

Nor is Apple's program available in Hawaii and Alaska, which might not seem like a big deal unless you live there. Dell and HP also run more local recycling events than does Apple. Dell's got partnerships with Goodwill and other nonprofits to take back its machines. In short - Dell's a leader, Apple's a laggard.

The comparisons over use of toxics aren't as clear cut. Apple is being asked to phase out PVCs and brominated flame retardants. But, as of now, Apple, HP and Dell all use those materials, while they seek alternatives. Apple says it plans to phase them out. HP and Dell say they will do so by 2009. That's not a significant difference, although promises tend to be kept when they are attached to target dates.

But the contrast points to a more significant gap: Apple is not as transparent or accountable as its competitors. HP and Dell publish extensive corporate social responsibility reports, and they invite outside critics to review their progress. Apple provides some useful information on its Web site - you can see for yourself here - but much of it reads more like spin than a candid self-assessment.

As for Gore, he's drawing criticism from the environmentalists because Apple told them that its board voted unanimously against two shareholder resolutions. As You Sow, a nonprofit firm that promotes corporate responsibility on behalf of shareholders, filed a resolution about recycling, asking the company to study the issue. A resolution by Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm, asked Apple to look closely at the toxics issue.

Why would Gore vote against them? He declined to respond, through a spokeswoman, but it probably has less to do with the substance of the issues than the sorry state of corporate governance. Even today, very few directors are willing to cast dissenting votes, display independence or publicly criticize management. Gore, you may recall, was also part of an Apple board committee that cleared Steve Jobs of wrongdoing over options backdating, but that's another story.

The more interesting question is, what, if anything, has Gore done behind-the-scenes to press Apple to change? There's no way to know, of course. But we do know that Gore met last spring with the activist groups, including the Computer TakeBack Campaign, and he brought along an Apple exec. (Gore asked everyone to keep the meeting quiet.) That's more than Jobs would do.

Jobs met once with As You Sow because they represent shareholders but, as far as we know, he has never sat down with an environmental group. Most CEOs now understand that they have a lot to gain and nothing to lose by meeting with their critics, but not Jobs.

The other reason to think that Gore could be having an impact is that Apple has made meaningful progress around environmental issues in the last several years. It expanded its recycling efforts. It responded for the first time (albeit incompletely) to the Carbon Disclosure Project, which asks companies to report on their greenhouse gas emissions. It's reducing the size and weight of its computers and its packaging. It adopted a supplier code of conduct in 2005. It reported publicly on a controversy surrounding iPod manufacturing in China.

Conrad MacKerron, director of corporate responsibility for As You Sow, which got Dell going on the recycling issue years ago, says Apple still has a lot of work to do. "For now, Dell seems to be the gold standard," he says. "I'd like to see Apple step up."

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To subscribe to Marc Gunther's columns on the social and environmental impact of business, visit www.marcgunther.com

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.