It's not every day that a corporate chief executive publicly invites one of his company's shareholders to sell their stock. But that's exactly what Apple CEO Tim Cook did at a shareholders meeting Friday when someone from the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) said that Apple should abstain from environmental initiatives that don't have a direct, positive effect on stock valuation.
"As shareholders, we object to increased government control over company products and operations, and likewise mandatory environmental standards," said NCPPR attorney Justin Danhof in a statement [PDF]. "This is something the company should be actively fighting, not preparing surrender."
The suggestion made Cook "quite angry," according to a reporter present at the meeting.
"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI [return on investment]," said Cook. According to Mac Observer, Cook added that the same thing applies to the company's sustainability policy. He concluded, "If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock."
The source of Danhof's complaint was two-fold. First, he criticized Apple's membership in the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade association that provides guidance on how companies can reduce carbon emissions and become more environmentally sustainable. Danhof described the trade group's work as "market-distorting" and expressed his dismay with Apple's decision to hire Lisa Jackson, formerly the head of the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency. It was on her watch that the EPA issued a finding "that is now driving much of the corporate climate change hysteria," said Danhof.
For more than three decades, NCPPR has put similar tactics toward conservative economic ends. Most recently, the group put pressure on General Electric to avoid any policies that reduce carbon emissions without adding to profit margins. The group has also gone after major corporations that have allegedly dropped out of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, another conservative business group) in response to left-wing pressure.
The public clash between Apple and NCPPR may have made for some compelling theater, but it's not entirely clear how much Apple has committed to "market-distorting" sustainability efforts. While environmental data expert Cary Krosinsky has said Apple might very well be "the model of a sustainable company," the company has also been accused of "greenwashing," or deliberately overstating the environmental friendliness of its products.
Yet even alleged "greenwashing" could be something for some of Apple's competitors to worry about. Companies that engage in greenwashing usually do so because they seem some profit in appearing to have adopted sustainable practices. The more companies that see a competitive advantage in appearing to be sustainable, the greater the pressure on their competitors to adopt a similar public image.
An Apple spokesperson declined to comment directly on the "greenwashing" allegations but forwarded a link to a page on the company's official website.