On July 10, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Apple (AAPL) would delist all 39 of its desktops, laptops, and monitors from a voluntary, green-electronics registry called EPEAT. Just seven days later, The Journal reported that Apple will relist the previously deregistered products.
The sudden change of heart likely arose from the storm of controversy that followed the move. Hard-core Apple fans vented their wrath, and the city of San Francisco said it would stop buying Apple products for official use.
What were They Thinking?
When the story broke, Apple was vague on why it was leaving EPEAT. According to The Wall Street Journal, Apple told EPEAT it was delisting the products because of "changes to its 'design direction.'"
Ironically, Apple helped found EPEAT. It was a coordinated effort between electronics manufacturers, the government, and eco-activist groups. EPEAT certification is an industry stamp of approval that indicates that electronics are more energy efficient than competing products and are also easier to recycle.
The move to delist and risk angering the eco-friendly powers that be is all the more confounding because Apple recently made a great stride in the area of social responsibility: In February, the company invited the Fair Labor Association to begin inspections of its overseas factories.
Obviously, They Weren't Thinking
Of course, that invitation to the FLA was made only after the consumer-electronics giant had weathered another storm of controversy, this time surrounding working conditions at its factories in China. So maybe that's the answer to this puzzle: Apple will be socially responsible when its back is against the wall.
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Nucor (NUE) A company in a cyclical industry like the steel-making business could certainly be excused for paring down its workforce during tough times. During the Great Recession, Nucor's revenues were cut in half -- and yet the company didn't lay off a single worker.
Following a plan instituted by his predecessor, F. Kenneth Iverson, CEO Dan DiMicco has the company carry out a "pain-sharing" program when business is slow. Executives are the first to take pay cuts -- and they can be steep. After that, hours are reduced. That can hurt, but in the end, everyone keeps their jobs.
Whole Foods (WFM) Sure, it's great that this grocer is encouraging Americans to eat smarter, but that alone isn't enough reason to celebrate it. The presence of Whole Foods has encouraged the proliferation of organic foods, which are unquestionably better for the environment. The company's color-coded seafood sustainability index encourages customers to consume responsibly, and it has taken huge steps to encourage sustainable farming in Costa Rica.
But it doesn't end there: Whole Foods also has an admirable approach to salaries. Co-CEO and founder John Mackey gets a $1 salary and took home just $78,000 in 2011 in accrued vacation time; no executive is allowed to earn more than 19 times the average worker's total pay.
Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B) Warren Buffett's baby makes it on to the list for how it's run: with an uber-long-term horizon and the utmost respect for shareholders. Arguably the greatest investor the world has ever seen, Buffett has also set the standard for transparency when it comes to communicating with the financial community.
Case in point: the David Sokol fiasco of early 2011. Sokol, one of Buffett's top charges, convinced Berkshire that Lubrizol -- a chemicals company -- was worthy of acquisition. The problem: Sokol held a substantial amount of Lubrizol shares that stood to appreciate upon the acquisition, and he didn't disclose the holding.
Sokol left the company around the time this information became known. Buffett was quick to give a full account of the situation, baring all for outsiders to see -- including his later bewilderment with Sokol's behavior.
Starbucks (SBUX) Sure, it's easy to see this coffee king as a symbol of all that's wrong with corporate America. Satirical newspaper The Onion once joked that the stores were so ubiquitous, a new Starbucks was being opened in the restroom of an existing Starbucks.
All jokes aside, the company has been a model employer and partner with suppliers. Any employee who works just 20 hours per week is given health-care coverage. During the economic downturn, the company spent more money on this benefit annually than it did on all the coffee it bought. Starbucks has spearheaded the move for fair-trade coffee as well. It is the world's largest purchaser of fair-trade coffee, and it often pays above market value to its producers in developing countries.
And this past year, CEO Howard Schultz launched a drive to kick-start American job growth. In the program dubbed "Create Jobs for USA," the company collects donations from customers. All of the donations are poured into a fund that facilitates micro-loans to spur small-business job growth.
Costco (COST) Competitor Walmart (WMT) has been in the headlines a lot lately. Whether it's for bribing officials in Mexico or not allowing employees to form unions, there seems to be a dark cloud hanging over the company. So why doesn't Costco get any bad press when the majority of its employees don't have union representation either?
It's actually quite simple: The company believes in its employees, and it backs that up with its actions. Employees are paid an average of $17 per hour and have generous health-care and retirement benefits -- two things Walmart employees certainly can't claim.
And customers are huge beneficiaries as well. Costco has razor-thin margins -- which means nearly every penny of savings Costco can squeeze out using its size and efficiency is passed on to customers. The company's profits, in fact, are almost entirely accounted for in membership dues -- not sales. The approach has worked out well for shareholders, too; including dividends, Costco shares have returned 131% over the past decade, doubling what the larger market has offered up and quintupling Walmart returns.
"We've recently heard from many loyal Apple customers who were disappointed to learn we had removed our products from the EPEAT rating system," Apple's senior VP of hardware engineering, Bob Mansfield, said in an open letter on the subject of the relisting, "I recognize this was a mistake."
It was a doozy, the kind of error one of the best-run and most successful commercial enterprises in the world shouldn't be making.
John Grgurich is a regular contributor to The Motley Fool, and owns no shares in Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of and creating a bull call spread position on Apple.