Tracking Apple

23.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses were released into the atmosphere as a result of the manufacture, distribution and use of Apple products in 2011, according to Apple’s own accounting. The electronics company has garnered renown in recent years not only for blockbuster products like the iPhone and iPad, but also for its social and environmental commitments. Apple has worked hard to cement its green reputation—and it’s working. A 2008 study conducted by Strategic Oxygen and Cohn & Wolfe found that, after Dell, Apple is widely considered to be the most eco-friendly tech company by U.S. consumers.

Is Apple Greenwashing?

Just as Apple has come under fire for working conditions in the Chinese Foxconn plants that build its devices, it has also been targeted by sustainability advocates and competitors who accuse the tech giant of greenwashing. Months after the results of the aforementioned study were released, Dell posted a piece on its corporate blog accusing Apple of making “wild claims” about the eco-friendliness of its products and avoiding concrete goals. In 2010, consumer advocates attacked Apple’s portrayal of its iPad as a textbook example of greenwashing, pointing out numerous wasteful flaws in the device’s design (it couldn’t be upgraded or easily repaired or recycled). And this year, Greenpeace has pointed out that Apple continues to power its iCloud data centers with coal even as the company trumpets a solar-powered facility in North Carolina.

Branding and Consumer Loyalty

Apple has a real financial interest in appearing eco-friendly. Tech companies have faced increasingly tough questions from environmentally conscious consumers.

A brand, like the famous Apple logo, can become more than just an indicator of who made a product: It also says something about the person who bought it. The use of specific products can be a way for consumers to express values—including sustainability

Consumers fed up with greenwashing can make effective use of brand loyalty in order to express their frustration or push for change. According to TerraChoice, an environmental marketing and consulting firm that maintains a website on the “sins of greenwashing” the amount of “sin-free” products on the market is on the rise as a direct result of consumer activism. While demand for green products is certainly a driver of the greenwashing phenomenon, many companies will improve practices in order to placate consumers. Consumers who select only the most sustainable brands and reject pretenders can be part of the solution. Social media and other online forums for consumer activism can also help, as they allow for the dissemination of information that clarifies—or contradicts—what companies are saying about their own products.

Shareholder Activism

Anyone with a 401(k) or an IRA is likely a shareholder in several large companies. Company boards and executives, those with the power to make major decisions, ultimately answer to the demands of their shareholders. The more shares you own, the louder your voice.

This principle can be seen in practice in Apple’s recent history. In February, shareholders were able to change the process by which the company elects board members from requiring a plurality to a majority. Similar pressure from shareholders and investors, increasingly aware of the social and environmental harm caused by corporate institutions, could result in changes in the manufacturing, distribution and use of Apple products.

According to Geoffrey C. Rapp, professor at the University of Toledo College of Law, shareholder resolutions and the nomination of environmentally sensitive directors to corporate boards both have precedent for steering companies in a green direction. And a 2006 decision by a Delaware court regarding healthcare billing and accounting fraud may actually yield results in environmental activism, too. The court set up a legal precedent that increases the responsibility of shareholders to oversee corporate practice in all cases.

Buying Change

Previous attempts to push Apple to improve social and environmental practices have fallen short. Consumer activists were shocked that the widespread media coverage surrounding inhumane working conditions at the Foxconn manufacturing plants in China had no influence on the subsequent sale of iPhones and iPads. And Apple’s attempts to paint itself green were undermined in 2010 when shareholders voted down a proposed sustainability report and the creation of a special sustainability board. So how do consumer and shareholder activism hold up in the continuing fight?

Change is possible, but most shareholders don’t pay attention to corporate practices. In a similar rejection of sustainability initiatives by Microsoft shareholders, most voters simply followed the recommendations of the company.

STEPHEN DWORKIN is an environmental journalist living in Connecticut. He writes the Political Gas blog for E.