Thursday, May 8, 2008

Poor Reporting Begets Poor Reporting

I’m guessing that we’ll see this making the rounds of the Apple blogosphere in the next few days and weeks. Environmental advocacy group has released a new report ranking, among other things, the environmental impact of a number of major electronics manufacturers. There are plenty of gritty details to pour over, but what’s going to end up getting reported is that IBM took the top spot with a score of 77, while Apple was ranked last with 11.

Now first, I applaud the effort. Even with all the attention that has been gained for environmental causes over the last few years, big companies still aren’t doing enough to reduce their footprint. Large corporations are slow to change, regardless, and the kind of top to bottom change of outlook that solid environmental awareness requires is especially difficult to inject into a corporate culture that is, by its nature, driven primarily by the bottom line. What progress has been made is due, in part, to the efforts of groups like ClimateCounts to raise awareness and put some pressure on corporations to clean up their act. But...

There are a couple of problems here. First, the scores are frequently subjective and are sometimes dead wrong. Take, for instance, Apple’s score on item number 11. ClimateCounts asks “Is there top level support for climate change action?” That’s pretty subjective, but they at least attempt to break it down, awarding one point if “Senior level executive or Board members designated as responsible for climate issues”, and awarding two points if “Clear, public articulation of company’s views on climate by CEO and/or top management.” I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether “public articulation” of a company’s position really makes that much difference to real-world environmental impact. Apple scores 0 points in this category, despite a very public, and widely reported open letter from the CEO that specifically addresses the company’s eco-related initiatives. Did they miss that one, or does it not count?

Second, the methodology is seriously flawed here. ClimateCounts uses publicly available information to formulate scores. Where information isn’t available, they simply assign a score of zero. Now, I understand the importance of open reporting to environmental verification, but to assume that there is no effort or action in a particular area just because there hasn’t been a public reporting of it is kind of like assuming that nobody in your office cleans their bathrooms just because they haven’t talked to you about it. The result is a profile by ClimateCounts that doesn’t rate the actual greenness of companies so much as it rates the ability of ClimateCounts to obtain information on their greenness. This is especially important with a company like Apple, where innovation is central to the culture and secrecy has evolved to protect poaching from competitors.

IBM scored 77 in the ClimateCounts report , Nokia 37 and Apple 11. Is Nokia really more than twice as environmentally friendly as Apple? Does anyone really think that Apple is seven times worse for the planet than IBM? No reasoned analysis would come to that conclusion, but some group made a report with numbers and issued it, and the reporting is going to be that Apple scored an abysmal 11 points and is terrible on the environment, when the truth is that Apple is terrible at transparency (except in its products) and terrible at reporting on the environment.

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