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Sustainability Wars: Apple Versus Google

Jan 27, 2011

Google and Apple are arguably two of the most important companies in our technology-centric lives.

With the two businesses directly competing in mobile computing, advertising, email, browser development, television, eBooks and all sorts of new digital content delivery, Apple and Google’s differing market strategies get frequently debated.

But there's another very important factor missing from this comparison: Environmental sustainability.

Both companies have comprehensive web pages highlighting their corporate sustainability efforts. Apple’s is here, and Google’s is here. But are they living up to the standards consumers and environmental groups are starting to demand?

Early History

For a couple of years, Greenpeace and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition made life difficult for Apple, calling on them to address the large volume of toxic e-waste their disposable products generate. In 2007 Steve Jobs responded with this open letter detailing Apple’s plans to become Greener. That was the beginning of Apple’s public focus on sustainability.

From then on, Jobs made a point at public keynotes to highlight Apple’s efforts to Green their product line, focusing on phasing out nasty chemicals, optimizing packaging, and end-of-life product take-back.

Before these changes, I don’t think Apple was particularly out of step with its industry peers; the company probably got singled out because it had a strong brand and customers that were of the more environmentally-conscious variety.

Google seemed to approach the cause of corporate sustainability more proactively. It’s a younger company that started at a time when more people were thinking about environmental concerns. I heard the stories early on from friends working at Google: Everybody gets re-usable google mugs, there are bikes available to get around campus, there’s a phenomenal bus system giving employees rides to work, and the company also installed a 1.6 MW PV system in 2007 – the largest commercial solar system at that time.

Google’s culture encouraged sustainability from the get-go rather than as a result of environmental groups campaigning against them.

Corporate Commitment

Clearly, Google is in the lead when it comes to investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. (Of course, they require far more data centers than Apple, making their investments more important for operations).

As a leader of the “cloud computing” movement, Google is working to make data centers more energy efficient. But going beyond that, Google is the one “thinking different” about dirty coal fired power. Through their nonprofit, Google.org, the company is attacking the clean energy supply problem head on. They’ve taken calculated financial risk aimed at accelerating clean energy down the cost curve so that it becomes cheaper than coal sooner. Google has a lot of cash, and I’m glad to see them using some of it to invest in a clean energy future.

One of the companies they helped fund through Google.org to the tune of 10 million dollars is called eSolar, and the company has since won a contract to build 2 GW of CSP projects in China. (To put that in perspective, this single contract is more solar power capacity than we’ve installed in the entire USA). Google is even working internally on the engineering behind concentrated solar thermal.

Apple is taking a less aggressive (and somewhat less exciting) approach. If you has ask the company's marketing department, they’ll tell you they’ve redoubled their sustainability efforts year after year. In 2008 they launched the Greenest Notebook Ever. And it got the highest Gold ratings from EPEAT.

Today’s iPods, iPhones and iPads are very different products from the laptops and desktops of years past. The limitations of battery technology have driven Apple to write very clever software and use very efficient hardware to get the best battery life possible. And considering that battery life is the same thing as energy efficiency, those efforts will help control increased energy demand as more people plug their devices into the grid.

Apple also obtained a patent for integrating solar charging into their product line recently, but the promise of a solar-powered laptop or iPhone seems very unlikely in the near term. It's nice to see them moving in the right direction anyhow.

Apart from that, Apple’s news isn’t very positive.

A recent report from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs condemns Apple for keeping information about its supply chain secret – claiming that the company's partners are responsible for poisoning workers and the environment in the manufacturing of its products.

Whether or not the allegations are entirely true, the company's board hasn't proven amenable to sustainability efforts. At the recommendation of the company, Apple’s Shareholders rejected two environmental initiatives at a recent shareholder meeting. One was for a commitment to greenhouse gas reduction targets and the other was for the formation of a sustainability committee.

For now, Google is leaving them in the dust.

Conclusion: What the Future May Hold

Google has a lot of sustainability-focused products and initiatives in the works. Investments in Enhanced Geothermal Systems, Concentrating Solar Power, smart meter devices and the Google Earth Engine, which tracks Climate Change and Deforestation, are just some examples of the company's commitment to clean energy and sustainability.

Of course, they have a long way to go before they can be considered truly “sustainable” – but an honest, multi-faceted effort is there.

Apple, on the other hand, has yet to make any serious investments in clean energy, or use its brand to promote the cause environmental stewardship.

It was reported last December that Apple is going to redesign its Cupertino, California headquarters – a 148-acre campus purchased from HP – making it more energy efficient and powering some buildings with renewable energy. With nearly $27 billion in cash on hand, it would be a smart investment.

No further details have yet been released – but if Apple is serious about the project, it would certainly be a feather in the company's cap. With a sketchy history on sustainability issues, Apple really needs to do something big in order to meet the standards of a a player like Google – a company that is literally driving the renewable energy industry forward as a concerned consumer, investor and technology pioneer.

The information and views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of RenewableEnergyWorld.com or the companies that advertise on this Web site and other publications. This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.

I'm a huge fan of renewable energy and I hail from Silicon Valley. I spend a good deal of time thinking about energy efficiency, and looking for ways to use technology to make our young Green Tech industry more efficient.

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