Over a decade ago, Apple established a set of environmental health and safety policies to not only “Meet or exceed all applicable environmental, health and safety requirements,” but also, “Where laws and regulations do not provide adequate controls… adopt… standards to protect human health and the environment.” Those words, by the way, can be found in Appendix D of Apple’s 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, issued this week. The 56-page PDF report looks very much like an Apple product: a clean, attractively spare document featuring lots of white space, beautiful photos, and a not inconsiderable amount of data inside. Unlike many Apple products, while this year’s report reveals what Apple has most recently accomplished, pundits won’t need to speculate where Apple plans to go in the future.
That’s because Apple has explicitly revealed its goals, with its environmental intentions coming in the form of “bold questions” asked by Apple’s Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, in the report’s opening statement:
“Can we power a global business with the sun, wind, and water?”
“Can we get 100 percent of our supply chain to move to 100 percent renewable energy?”
“Can we one day stop mining the earth altogether?”
“Can we use only 100 percent recycled and responsibly sourced paper in our packaging?”
“Can we improve on the world’s best materials?”
Of course, it’s in any company’s interest to post softball questions in such a progress report, but Apple does at least try to answer them honestly, if the three third-party assurance and review statements in Appendix C of the report can be trusted.
On powering a global business with sun, wind, and water, Apple reports that 96 percent of the electricity that powers its global facilities comes from renewable resources, and that its carbon footprint was 29.5 million metric tons for fiscal 2016, down from 38.4 million metric tons the year before. Moreover, the company says that 100 percent of the power it consumes in the United States for data centers already comes from renewable sources.
As for its supply chain moving completely to renewable resources, Apple reports that, between Apple-initiated energy audits and training, “efficiency improvements made by suppliers avoided more than 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.” The company has installed “485 megawatts of wind and solar projects across six provinces of China” and plans to deliver 2 gigawatts of clean power in China alone by 2020, and 4 gigawatts of such power worldwide. (To see what these and other numbers mean, try entering them into the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.)
How about reducing its reliance on mining? Apple hasn’t been as successful at that but reports that it is increasing the use of recyclable materials like aluminum and tin (100 percent of the solder on the iPhone 6 main logic board comes from recycled tin). Results from Liam, Apple’s research and development project on disassembly technologies, are helping to increase the yield of recyclable materials from its products.
When it comes to packaging materials, Apple reports that in fiscal 2016 it “used 131,000 metric tons of fiber, of which 62 percent was recycled, 38 percent was virgin fiber from responsibly managed sources, and less than 1 percent was virgin fiber that did not comply with our sustainable fiber specification.” Apple is also stepping up partnerships with groups like the Conservation Fund and the World Wildlife Fund to increase the number of acres of sustainable forest from which it obtains such fiber.
Finally, Apple has invested heavily in environmental testing to reduce the amount of toxic materials in its products. Apple’s Cupertino Environmental Testing Lab, which uses plasma mask spectroscopy and ion, liquid, and gas chromatography among other tools and techniques to identify toxic materials, has grown twenty-fold since its establishment in 2006. The company even manufactures artificial sweat so it can measure the amount of nickel leaching from Apple Watch cases to help reduce exposure to customers who are allergic to nickel (Apple has created a video explaining why it makes its artificial sweat). Other toxic materials that Apple has eliminated from its products include beryllium, mercury, PVC and phthalates, arsenic, and lead.
To be sure, this report is designed to show Apple’s efforts in the best possible light. Moreover, no manufacturer that operates at Apple’s scale can avoid causing some environmental degradation. Nonetheless, at a time when national and world leaders seem to have become less concerned with global environmental issues, it is heartening to see a corporation of Apple’s size and influence make environmental protection a fundamental — and well-funded — corporate goal.