Apple received an incredibly overwhelming response from customers, pundits, and doubters alike after having pulled its products from Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) certifications. It did so, in theory, because its latest MacBook Pro with Retina display failed to meet the standards set by EPEAT’s managing Green Electronics Council. Simply put, the new MacBook isn’t exactly easy to disassemble and recycle, which is a critical component in the standard.

Unfortunately for Apple, pulling support for this government-backed program meant facing the wrath of its environmentally minded fans and doubters. Apple’s support for EPEAT was a big deal, and it served as an example to other hardware makers that might not have otherwise focused on their product’s impact on the environment. The EPEAT certification that was once so proudly displayed on Apple’s online store was missing, even from products that had already qualified.

Why did Apple make this move? Well, if you can’t have that label on all of your products, why have that label at all? In the mind of a corporation, answering questions as to why one product didn’t qualify while others did is a hassle, and one PR rightfully wanted to avoid. In this case, the opposite result happened and Apple found itself in the middle of a full-on backlash.

Apple’s Return to the EPEAT Fold

Today, Apple is back on board with EPEAT after an open letter from Apple’s Vice President of Hardware Engineering expressed regret for having pulled this support in the first place. “We’ve recently heard from many loyal Apple customers who were disappointed to learn that we had removed our products from the EPEAT rating system.” He wrote, “I recognize that this was a mistake. Starting today, all eligible Apple products are back on EPEAT.”

Robert Frisbee, the CEO of EPEAT, offered a response in an open letter of his own: “We look forward to Apple’s strong and creative thoughts on ongoing standards development.” He continued, “The outcome must reward new directions for both design and sustainability, simultaneously supporting the environment and the market for all manufacturers’ elegant and high-performance products.”

In essence, Apple has backtracked on its decision and admitted that a mistake was made by dropping the voluntary industry standard. Environmental controversy is nothing new to Apple. Even though former Vice President Al Gore sits on the board of directors, Apple has gone through multiple controversies surrounding its products and their impact on the environment.

Apple’s Customer Culture and Environmentalism

What I’m about to say is surely going to be opposed by at least a portion of the folks reading this. Please take into account that I’m expressing an opinion based on personal experience (including having worked in an Apple call center for a year) and not the result of any scientific study.

Apple’s customers, by and large, are prone to being more environmentally conscious. While yes, the customer base has expanded considerably over the past several years, the general image that Apple portrays through its advertising and promotional materials is that of an artistic individual with a thumb on the pulse of what’s happening. This same mindset could easily translate to environmentalism, which itself isn’t a dirty word.

These young, hip individuals think differently and object to the trends set by corporate America. Even though Apple is presently the largest technology corporation in the world, the image it portrays of being the anti-business still shines through the brushed steel and artistic design of its products.

So, when Apple walks away from one of the most respected environmental standards out there, its customers take note. Add to that the recent controversy surrounding the patent issues between Apple, Samsung, and Google — and you have a PR nightmare. It’s only logical that Apple would backtrack on its recent decisions, if only to mitigate the backlash it’s receiving from its growing customer base.

Let’s Get Real for a Moment

There is nothing environmentally friendly about building a laptop, iPhone, iPad, or a cable. The recycling process itself takes resources, and no production line can be truly self-sustaining. Apple burns fuel when it ships products from overseas, carbon through manufacturing and use of its products, and other hard materials such as paper and plastic, which are used in packaging. While Apple might boast its reduction of carbon emissions, that number is still far from zero.

No, your Apple products aren’t going to save the world. At the very least, they may be less harmful to the environment than products from other companies. Apple measures its success in carbon emissions for every dollar earned. As Apple grows, so does the impact it has on the planet. That’s just a fact of life and industry. No amount of clever marketing can erase that fact.

Apple’s latest designs have made life more difficult for would-be environmentally conscious consumers. You get the benefit of a super-thin design on a world-class laptop, but you lose the ease of recycling. This is one of the reasons Apple doesn’t want its newer MacBook to stick out like a sore thumb on the store page. This EPEAT logo means a lot for Apple’s public relations.

Where Apple Really is Making an Impact

Perhaps one of the success stories behind the iOS platform (and OS X these days) that you don’t hear about from environmental reports is how much physical product is being saved by downloadable apps versus retail boxes. No DVDs need to be printed, no boxes must be produced, and shipping is needed to bring a program to you as long as it exists on either the iTunes App Store or the Mac App Store. It would be difficult to put these numbers together, but that change to the market has to be very significant.

This isn’t an exclusively Apple initiative, but it is one that Apple has supported (indirectly or directly). Software used to be this large “big box” product that came with manuals and tons of disks. I remember buying a PC game that had over a dozen floppy disks in it, two manuals, and enough cardboard to fuel a bonfire. All this to get a program that could be downloaded in a minute today with minimal energy.