Apple’s unveiling of its new MacBook Air, the thinnest laptop on the market, was met with both great fanfare and great controversy by those interested in its eco-pedigree. Bruce Nussbaum sums up much of the enthusiasm in the business community in his blog Nussbaum on Design:
“What struck me most about Steve Jobs’ presentation was the effort he made is showing how green the 3 lb. Air is. It doesn’t have mercury or arsenic in its LCD and glass. The aluminum frame can be recycled. The circuitry is PVC free. And there is less packing material than other laptops.”
I admire Apple for making an attempt to mitigate its effect on the environment. But I expect much more from the company that brought together designers, programmers, and record labels to bring digital music to the mainstream. Hopefully this is just Apple’s first foray into sustainability – and we’ll soon see the whole Apple tree. With the MacBook Air, though, Apple has seemingly abandoned the ecosystem approach. They haven’t rethought manufacturing. They haven’t redesigned the shipping or distribution system. They haven’t improved consumer access to component recycling centers. And most importantly, they haven’t addressed the underlying issues of disposability and planned obsolescence. It’s a bit like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube by getting all the colors on one side to match – and scrambling the other eight sides in the process. For a company like Apple, that’s unfortunate. Its blockbuster iPod + iTunes offering clearly demonstrates Apple’s ability to think systemically. After all, the iPod would have been just another MP3 player had Steve Jobs overlooked the record labels, the need for digital rights management, the online purchasing system, and the easy-to-use interface that ties it all together. Bringing together each part of that ecosystem made the offering great. It wasn’t just about the iPod. It was a true music system. It seems that the MacBook’s environmental shortcomings stem not from an attempt to mislead Apple aficionados, but rather from a misguided effort to solve a systemic problem – environmental damage caused by the computer industry – with a single solution. After all, environmental impact isn’t just measured by whether or not a product’s components will someday occupy space in a landfill. But that’s the only metric Jobs seems to have addressed. Issues like material consumption in manufacturing, energy consumption in transportation, and the lifespan of the product itself remain unresolved. And MacBook owners may not even know how to go about recycling their laptops once they’ve gone kaput. So which is it: a green machine or greenwashed business as usual? That’s all admirable – and certainly represents a vast improvement over current industry standards. But environmentalists and eco-blogs like Treehugger.com have rightly pointed out that the energy required to make and ship the machine, the virgin materials in each MacBook, and the very fact of its planned obsolescence are all decidedly not environmentally friendly.