By all outward appearance, Apple’s retail stores are a model for the Green Movement that encourages business to be considerate of ecological and environmental issues. But behind the stainless steel, glass and plastic, it’s difficult to tell if the stores’ natural materials really contribute to the preserving the planet. Part of the problem in evaluating Apple’s stores, or any retail operation, is that there are no clear industry standards for evaluating how Green the operation is. Even so, it’s possible to shed some light on two issues: where did the materials come from, and where are they going?
First and foremost, Apple uses lots of natural and recyclable materials when it designs and builds the stores: stainless steel, glass, stone and wood. This means the materials could have come from used or renewable sources, and once the stores decay in 1,000 years, the materials can be recycled.
On the other hand, certain of the materials had to be transported thousands of miles, generating “negative credits” for the pollution created by moving them to the United States. The stainless steel has to travel 5,100 miles to the west coast, probably by ship. The stone travels 4,800 miles to the east coast from Italy, also probably by ship. The window glass and wood come from the United States and Canada respectively, but glass for high-profile store staircases comes from Germany, a trip of at least 3,500 miles by ship.
The maple wood used for early store floors and current furniture comes from Canada, and is completely renewable. There is no current shortage of the timber, and in fact it’s a Canadian export industry.
The manufacturing of glass is a complicated process, and typically includes using small amounts of metals. In Apple’s case, some glass is specified as “low-iron,” but it’s not clear how environmentally friendly the window or staircase glass really is.
Like other commercial construction, Apple’s stores may incidentally use some recycled materials. Mall stores use aluminum studs for wall supports, which may include recycled content and are themselves entirely recyclable. Copper water pipes and electrical wiring may also come from recycled or recyclable materials.
Otherwise, with rare exceptions, none of the building materials for an Apple store have been recycled or re-used. Mall stores, in particular, consist of new materials. A few stores have retained a heritage building’s façade, perhaps qualifying it as “re-used” construction. The Buchanan Street (Glasgow) store retained the building’s historic stone walls, and the future Covent Garden (London) will retain the building’s large timber interior supports and flooring.
The operation of the stores is hit-and-miss. Most stores have a wide opening either to the outside or to the open air, putting an extra burden on the stores heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems (HVAC). While the back-lit Apple logos and sidewall graphics are lit with low-energy fluorescent tubes, most overhead lighting remains “tungsten filament” based, which consumes much more electricity. Both types of lighting, however, generate considerable heat.
On the display floor, power consumption and heat generation are obvious. A typical mall store has over 40 computers on display, along with a heat-generating Apple TV. Tallying up the computer displays, kids section, training and demo areas and the Genius Bar, a typical Apple store is consuming 3,640 watts from computers and displays when they are not sleeping.
Comparing that figure with average household use brings a surprise. Based on typical operating hours for a mall store (72), an Apple store consumes over 1,135 kilowatt (kwH) of electricity per month. In comparison, the average U.S. household consumes from about 1,000 to 1,300 kwH per month, depending upon the region of the country. Apple’s figure excludes lighting and HVAC, which would add substantially to the load. But it also includes low-power laptops that have miserly power consumption.
Two Apple stores have rooftop gardens that bring some real green to the stores, as well as provide some degree of environmental benefits. While thorough research hasn’t been performed, there’s widespread belief that rooftop lawns can lower a city’s “urban heat island effect.” More obvious is the plant’s ability to generate oxygen and provide cover for the roofing materials, which extend their life. Both the North Michigan Avenue (Chicago) and Boylston Street (Boston) stores have bright green roofs.
On the downside, green roofs require additional construction, both structurally to support the weight of the planting system, as well as drainage and watering systems. All of these additional systems generate negative credits due to manufacturing.
The stores have an indirect method of contributing to the environment–they’re a collection point for recycling products under certain conditions. Apple stores will accept iPods and product batteries at any time (10 percent discount on a new iPod, too!), and will also enroll you in a program to recycle old computers or monitors when you purchase a new one at the store.
[IFO - Thanks to commenters who noted that Apple offers to e-mail receipts to buyers, instead of generating a paper-based receipt that claimed the life of a tree. On the other hand, Apple produces thousands of T-shirts each year for store employees, for which there is no formal recycling program. We can only hope that employees see that the shirts are passed along or otherwise responsibly recycled.]
Chicago has a Green Roof project that provides financial incentives to businesses.
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