Has Steve Jobs finally got the message? He recently announced what the company would be doing to “remove toxic chemicals from our new products, and to more aggressively recycle our old products”.

A nice plan, but one that doesn’t address the environmental elephant in the room: the short life span of Apple products.

Greenpeace has excoriated Apple in recent months for lagging behind Dell, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Sony, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Toshiba and Fujitsu Siemens in their commitment to and practice of sustainable environmental policies. Its Green my Apple site this year won the Webby award for best activist website.

The materials that Apple has used in its products do not contribute to a happy iLife.

Jobs’ statement outlines just how they plan to phase out the use of such poisons as arsenic and mercury, used in LCD screens, and cadmium, hexavalent chromium and decabromidiphenyl ether, which are used in creating some metals and plastics.

Jobs also details Apple’s plans to be recycling more than Dell or HP by the year 2010. Little is said about manufacturing practices to date, other than to say that other manufacturers have also used these poisons. Apparently if everyone else does it, it’s not so bad.

I have written recently in both Eureka Street and The Big Issue on the inbuilt obsolescence of Apple products, an issue neatly sidestepped in Jobs’ statement. While not the only guilty party, Apple is particularly good at locking people into their “ecosystem” of products and services.

A case in point is the iPod. When Apple released their fifth generation iPod, they made a small change that had big implications. Formerly, most after market accessories plugged into the top of the iPod. For generation five, all accessories had to plug into the bottom of the iPod.

This may not seem like a big change. It was. In one fell swoop, anyone who bought a new iPod (perhaps because the difficult-to-replace battery had expired) was unable to use their old accessories. Before you ask “so what?” bear in mind that, according to CNET.com.au, the accessories market for iPods was worth $1.05 billion dollars last year, excluding web sales. That’s quite a (re-invigorated) cash cow.

In other words, Jobs’ statement is a pleasant piece of iSpin. Little is said in the statement about Apple’s philosophy of locking people into their “ecosystem.” Apple may well be on the way to being the best recyclers in the world. However, building products with limited lifespans and severely limiting “backwards compatability” is counter-intuitive to idea of recycling and being environmentally responsible.

Having Al Gore on board as the token eco-warrior board member will only go so far. What is needed is systemic change, and a new manufacturing philosophy. Apple is not the only company that builds obsolescence into its products.

But for a company that prides itself on being forward-thinking, its environmental and manufacturing policies are quite backwards.

Peter Fray

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