A few weeks ago, Apple released its 2020 Environmental Progress Report. It’s a masterpiece of communications, starting with a gorgeous website with progressively revealed high-level content as you scroll. More About buttons provide additional details on the site, but the mother lode is a 99-page PDF. I’d encourage anyone with more than a passing interest in environmental issues to read the full PDF because it’s impressive to see just how much time and money Apple is putting into its environmental efforts. We think of Apple as a technology company, but it’s doing more than many organizations that focus exclusively on the environment.
Apple’s Environmental Progress So Far
Most notably, of course, Apple’s stores, data centers, and offices in 44 countries are powered with 100% renewable energy, much of it generated by Apple-driven solar, wind, hydro, and biogas installations. Even better, over 70 of Apple’s suppliers have committed to using only renewable energy for producing Apple products. As of April 2020, Apple is carbon neutral for its corporate emissions, thanks to investments in projects that protect and restore forests, grasslands, and wetlands.
But it doesn’t stop there. In the past 11 years, Apple has reduced the average energy use of its products by 73%, to the point where the company estimates that it costs only $0.70 per year to charge an iPhone 11 Pro once per day. Apple is also working hard to reduce its use of virgin materials that come with significant environmental impacts. For instance, the Taptic Engine in the iPhone 11 models uses 100% recycled rare earth elements, a first for any smartphone, and the 2019 MacBook Air has 40% recycled materials overall.
Apple has also reduced its use of plastics in packaging by 58% over the past 4 years, and all of the paper used in packaging comes either from recycled sources or responsibly managed forests. Through partnerships with The Conservation Fund and the World Wildlife Fund, Apple says it has improved the management of more than 1 million acres of working forests in the United States and China.
Apple’s Environmental Goals
As impressive as these achievements are, they pale in comparison with the company’s larger goals:
- By 2030, Apple wants to be carbon neutral across its entire footprint, meaning that it will take into account the carbon impact of the entire lifecycle of its products. That will require low-carbon designs, increased energy efficiency, transitioning its supply chain to 100% renewable energy, avoiding direct carbon emissions, and scaling up investments in carbon removal projects.
- Apple wants to work toward using only recycled and renewable materials in both products and packaging. There’s no time frame on that ambitious goal, but the company does say that it’s trying to eliminate all plastics in packaging by 2025.
The more I read through Apple’s Environmental Progress Report, the more astonished I became. I think it’s safe to say that I pay more attention to Apple than most people, and while I’ve seen Apple’s press releases on a solar farm here or reduced use of toxic materials there, I had never fully internalized just how much Apple does with the environment in mind. The report is definitely worth your time.
Apple’s Environments of Scale
My first thought was that Apple must be spending billions on these efforts. As far as I can tell from the Environmental Progress Report and Apple’s financial filings, the company never says exactly how much. However, it does trumpet the fact that it has issued $4.7 billion in “green bonds,” which are fixed-income investments whose proceeds must go to specific environmental projects. Apple also claims that it is the largest corporate issuer of green bonds, though I’m not financially savvy enough to know why it would want to issue bonds rather than financing environmental efforts directly.
I suspect that Apple can do all this for the environment in large part because it makes so much money. Scale is important here—when we were running Take Control Books, we donated $0.25 per print-on-demand copy sold to a charity that planted trees. I don’t remember the total amount we ended up donating, but it was a drop in the ocean compared to what Apple is doing.
Reading about Apple’s environmental achievements and goals makes me feel better about Apple’s traditionally high prices. We all have different thresholds, I’m sure, for how much more we’re willing to pay to ensure that a manufacturer isn’t engaging in horrible behaviors like forced child labor or egregious pollution. With Apple, it’s clear that some percentage of the purchase price goes to deeply considered and carefully analyzed reductions in environmental impact. I’m willing to make that tradeoff for devices that I use all day, every day.
Of course, Apple has multiple motivations for its environmental efforts. Apple is a for-profit company, so if building a massive solar farm to power a data center results in long-term reduced energy costs along with the boost toward the effort to be carbon neutral, that’s a double win. Similarly, you may have noticed that the boxes that many Macs come in are smaller than they used to be—Apple has reduced the amount of packaging necessary to protect them in shipping. That’s good for the environment, particularly with reduced plastics, but it also means that more units fit in a shipping container, which reduces Apple’s transportation costs (and also its carbon emissions from shipping). And while Apple has numerous environmental projects that benefit the communities that host Apple data centers, those may be accompanied by tax breaks and generalized goodwill.
It’s easy to be cynical and suggest that Apple’s doing some of these things only because it saves money. But that’s missing the point—the best ways to protect the environment, the ones that we want all companies to be doing, are those that are both environmentally positive and improve the bottom line.
Some years ago, there was a lot of coverage about how Walmart played hardball with its suppliers, forcing them to accept razor-thin margins to be able to sell their products to Walmart. It’s now clear that Apple is using similar corporate pressure on its suppliers to get them to agree to commit to clean energy, waste reduction, and lowered greenhouse gas emissions. Is Apple throwing its weight around? Yes, just as Walmart was (and continues to do), but with a greater good in mind, rather than just shaving a few pennies off already cheaply made products.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said:
Climate change is real and we all share a responsibility to fight it. We will never waver, because we know that future generations depend on us.
In many ways, climate change is just like today’s coronavirus crisis. It’s a global threat that ignores borders, kills people, and destroys economies. The difference is that climate change moves slowly, so its mortality and economic effects add up gradually over decades rather than overwhelming us in a period of months. But there won’t be quick fixes, either—there’s no vaccine for climate change. Bill Gates lays this out well in a recent GatesNotes post called “COVID-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse.”
Even Apple’s efforts are unlikely to make a significant dent in the climate change problem—it’s just too vast—but I hope they can serve as a role model, both for other large businesses and for governments that seem to lack the willpower to move in the necessary direction.