Inside Apple’s green revolution: can it make a carbon neutral iPhone?


If you want to understand Apple’s environmentalism, then you should know about its founder’s eating habits. Steve Jobs was a vegetarian for most of his life, a vegan for some of it and would occasionally eat the same combination of fruits and vegetables for weeks on end. In a particularly entertaining passage in his biography, Jobs’ daughter, Lisa, recalls how she “watched him spit out a mouthful of soup one day after learning that it contained butter”. In 1991 – 15 years after its 1976 founding – Apple began to carry this eco-consciousness into its operations by phasing out its use of lead in batteries: its first step of many to create more sustainable products and clean up its manufacturing processes.

Of course, Tim Cook is now Apple’s CEO, half the world has watched Cowspiracy and the Impossible Burger is as much of a Californian staple as sunshine, surfers and forest fires. Still, the $2 trillion tech giant’s philosophy of striving to do better by the planet remains unchanged and its ambitions are, as insiders would term it, “relentlessly optimistic”.

In the past decade, Apple has transitioned its facilities to run entirely on renewable energy. In the past year, all of the iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch devices it released have been partly made with recycled materials. These moves have won approval from the likes of Greenpeace, but Apple has always suggested that was never the endgame. “We set really big goals for ourselves,” explains Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives. “At one point we were even calling them crazy questions.”

Those crazy questions led to a major announcement in July – one that Greenpeace said “shows what’s possible for tech brands and could lead to a mindset shift” for the industry. Having already achieved carbon-neutral status for everything it directly controls – its own stores, offices and other corporate operations – Apple is now going one step further. It is promising to do the much more difficult thing of tackling all of the other emissions associated with its activities, which are almost entirely produced by sources it doesn’t directly control such as suppliers and users. And Apple has set itself a challenging deadline. The ambition is to make its entire business, including manufacturing supply chain and product life cycle, carbon neutral by 2030. “Every Apple device sold will have net-zero climate impact,” Apple said in its statement. As such, it is the biggest company by market cap so far to tackle the climate crisis head on by promising to negate its carbon footprint in the space of a decade.

When Cook unveils the iPhone 12 to an empty arena in Cupertino, California, in the next few weeks, it is therefore sure to be its most ecofriendly smartphone ever. If history is a guide, this will largely go unmentioned compared to the usual cocktail of redesigned hardware, customer satisfaction scores and perhaps “one more thing” to send the tech press into a tizz. Make no mistake, for a company that sold a reported $142 billion worth of iPhones last year, this is the work that we ought to be scrutinising most carefully right now.

But the question is: faced with a crisis as severe as climate change, does even Apple’s ambition go far enough?

To outsiders, it’s tough to gauge a company’s environmental chops. Partly that’s because the science is arcane (it’s hard to get a handle on the significance of an iPhone using 100 per cent recycled tin in its logic board solder), but mostly it’s because we’ve grown jaded about greenwashing. Every big company, from BP to Starbucks, is falling over itself to proclaim its supposedly green credentials. Hell, even Heathrow Airport has pledged to go carbon neutral by the mid 2030s… excluding all the emissions from its 1,300 daily flights.

‘It’s a huge goal. Even saying it, I always get a little lump, because I know what’s involved’

But it’s important to interrogate Apple’s approach. Where the world’s most influential tech company leads, others follow. For this reason, environmental groups such as the Worldwide Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace see Apple as key to changing its industry. If sustainability is marketed as an iPhone feature that’s on par with its triple-lens camera or Super XDR Display, then consumers could well demand the same from their Samsung or Huawei handset.

Of course, getting to this stage has been something of a journey. In 2007, for instance, Apple’s board argued against calls from shareholders to phase out its use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing and introduce a more robust recycling programme. And four years later, Beijing’s Institute Of Public And Environmental Affairs took aim at Apple’s suppliers for discharging polluted waste and toxic metals into local communities.

Both issues were later remedied, but the big turning point in its ethos came in 2013 with the appointment of Lisa Jackson. Previously Barack Obama’s administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, she reports directly to CEO Tim Cook in a role that encompasses the entirety of Apple’s operations, from the data centres that power Apple TV+ to the mining practices that govern what goes into your iPhone.

She says that it wasn’t only the scale of the task that drew her to the job, but also the belief that Apple didn’t merely want to tick boxes. “During my interviews no one said, ‘What do we have to do to get in front of all these environmental rules and regulations?’” she recalls. “They said, ‘What can we do to lead the world to a better place?’ And that was really impressive to me. I didn’t run across that practically ever.’”

To see the fruits of her tenure, take a trip to Dao County in Hunan Province, China. Gaze over the lush, rolling hills and you’ll be able to see the Concord Jing Tang and Concord Shen Zhang Tang windfarms, which Apple and ten of its suppliers created as part of the $300 million China Clean Energy Fund that will be delivered by 2022 to enable one gigawatt’s worth of renewable electricity every year. Each enormous wind turbine at the Concord Jing Tang has a rotor diameter of 121 metres, which is about the length of eleven London buses placed back to back.

One of Apple’s 100 per cent renewable electricity-powered data centres

The pay-off for this project and other similar planned efforts? As of this year, 71 of Apple’s more than 200 suppliers have committed to using these new 100 per cent renewable sources of energy for the production of its products, slashing their annual CO2 emissions to the effect of 14.3m metric tons – the equivalent of taking more than 3m cars off the road each year. It’s a significant milestone given supply chain emissions account for 76 per cent of Apple’s carbon footprint.

But there’s plenty of work left to finish the job. In 2019 the company was still responsible for 25.1m metric tons of CO2 emissions, which is roughly the annual output of six coal-fired power plants. That’s not only because there are more suppliers to get on board, but also because transporting devices produces emissions – as does the power consumed when we charge our iPhone.

In solving the supplier problem, Apple is taking what is generally considered the right approach, by investing in projects that’ll bring new, clean energy onto national grids and buying large amounts of power up front from solar and wind farms. The alternative would have been carbon offsetting, which sidesteps the important business of reducing emissions, or bulk purchasing Renewable Energy Credits, which often do little to encourage the growth of new renewable projects.

“Especially for Apple, this is very significant,” explains Elizabeth Jardim, Greenpeace’s senior corporate campaigner. “Because much of its supply chain is in China and Southeast Asia, where there’s a huge amount of coal power, this allows them to find cleaner sources of energy in a region that is otherwise dirty and hopefully begin to shift the grid mix in those regions.” What’s more, many of Apple’s suppliers make products for other tech companies, further amplifying the effects.

But committing to a 100 per cent renewable supply chain by 2030 is a huge undertaking. “It’s a really huge goal,” says Jackson. “Even saying it, I always get a little lump, because I know how much work is involved in doing it, but we have a very detailed plan.” Apple has reportedly created a whole new team specifically to help suppliers make the shift. It is also launching one of the largest new solar arrays in Scandinavia.

Jackson regards her work in this field so far as her proudest achievement in the job to date. “Tim [Cook] tells us all the time to be a ripple in the pond,” she says. “Not just to change Apple, but to change the world. Apple is a manufacturer and that is the hardest segment to decarbonise and change to clean energy. When we do that work a lot of those manufacturers will go ahead and use that clean energy for other folks.”

The bigger the “ripple” Apple can inspire, the easier it will be to go one step further than carbon neutral. “Carbon neutral” is where net emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are zero. Apple is calculating its progress by taking its total emissions from 2015, when they peaked, and seeking to reduce them by 75 per cent. The remainder, produced mainly by transport and usage, will be offset through projects such as mangrove restoration in Colombia and savanna conservation in Kenya. But how do you stop that final 25 per cent being generated in the first place? For no new carbon to be added to the atmosphere at all – the gold standard for sustainability – Apple would need the world to change with it. Until air travel doesn’t require jet fuel or our homes run off renewables, offsetting will be the best it can do.

Clean energy is a problem you can almost brute-force your way through, with enough money and willpower, but to meet its 2030 pledge the company also needs to use low-carbon materials through recycling and the development of new processes. It’s already investing in developing world-first carbon-free aluminium smelting, but the problem goes well beyond aluminium. Solving it will take brains, a robot and the management of several forests.

You see, whereas human life requires around 30 elements in the periodic table to exist, the average smartphone demands about 75. All are a finite resource, but some are significantly less abundant than others, specifically those that sound like they belong to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – such as dysprosium, terbium and gadolinium – which are categorised as “rare earth elements”.

Apple currently uses recycled tin, plastic and rare earths in the iPhone 11 and even this limited progress is a great deal more substantive than that offered by its rivals. Although Google has promised to follow suit by 2022, no other major phone manufacturer currently uses recycled materials in its products. For the communities involved in mining materials for smartphones, wider change often can’t come soon enough. From damage to fresh water through nickel extraction in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines to human rights abuses and corruption associated with cobalt in the DRC, the making of any handset is fraught with potential for bad actors and irrevocable damage to indigenous landscapes.

“Even for the minute amounts of gold used in smartphones, mining a third of an ounce generates a minimum of 20 tonnes of waste,” says Payal Sampat, mining programme director at nonprofit organisation Earthworks. “Much of this is forever contaminated with acid mine drainage, cyanide and other chemicals that are used to separate the gold from its ore.” In acknowledgement of these pitfalls, Apple publicly committed in 2017 to using no new mined metals, minerals and rare earths in its products. Eventually. Unlike its renewable energy policy, Apple hasn’t set a deadline.

In the meantime, it performs 1,142 annual supplier assessments in 49 countries to uphold better practices. One result of its commitment to eliminate virgin rare earths can be seen in the 100 per cent recycled taptic engine – the tech that makes your handset’s screen vibrate – which was first used in all of last year’s new iPhone 11s. Crucial to this effort is a dedicated robot, which disassembles old taptic engines for harvesting. It’s no small beer. The component accounts for roughly a quarter of these devices’ rare-earth usage. For the other 75 per cent, Apple will have to develop new recycling tools and techniques. Its Material Recovery Lab in Austin, Texas, will now work on that with Carnegie Mellon University.

Apple lets customers drop off spent products at its stores for recycling and also offers free postage to those who wish to return them remotely, but getting hold of devices is a challenge. In 2019, the company shipped 197m iPhones. In a statement that same year, it said it had received 1m devices through Apple recycling programmes. Kyle Wiens, cofounder and CEO of iFixit, a repair site that has led the way in advocating for longer-lasting smartphones, puts it straightforwardly: “I think most smartphones that have ever been manufactured are just sitting in drawers.”

This philosophy of a circular economy has been increasingly embraced by luxury lifestyle brands. From Gucci to Louis Vuitton, most fashion houses now offer at least one dedicated line of products made from upcycled and sustainable materials. Even Adidas has promised to use only recycled plastic in its products by 2024.

In the realm of smartphones, Apple is not so much a sustainability frontrunner as one of the few companies making a race of it in the first place. In Greenpeace’s “Guide To Greener Electronics 2017”, it was the best-rated major manufacturer by a clear margin and, according to Elizabeth Jardim, that status remains “a fair assessment” today. The only company to achieve a higher rating was Fairphone, a niche, European smartphone brand that makes Fairtrade-certified, repairable and recyclable devices at a considerably smaller scale. The latest Fairphone 3 has sold more than 50,000 units to date.

Apple’s iPhone 11 and product recycling robot

With any company’s desire to push sustainability comes the knowledge that not all its decisions are going to be crowd-pleasers. If industry speculation is correct, Apple will forgo the inclusion of a boxed-in charging brick and wired earbuds from the iPhone 12. This may prove a hard sell to customers. Still, with 1m tons of charging apparatus made each year and less than 40 per cent of electronic waste in the EU thought to be recycled, the benefits would be clear both in terms of slashing the amount of e-waste that ends up in landfills and lessening the carbon emissions derived from the iPhone’s transportation. For his part, Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior VP of Worldwide Marketing, declined to confirm (or deny) the speculation, but did provide new insight into Apple’s thinking on the subject.

“We’re always looking at ways to minimise the e-waste from our products,” he said. “It’s a continuous effort and an important one. We’re fortunate that people buy a lot of Apple products, so we know that the decisions we make in this regard are going to have an enormous impact. It’s our responsibility to minimise packaging and minimise what’s in the packaging if it’s not something the customer needs.”

Apple uses recycled and responsibly managed wood fibre in that packaging. It has seen the company protect and improve the management of more than 1m acres of forests in China and the US in partnership with The Conservation Fund and the World Wildlife Fund.

“Apple’s commitment represents a new model that we want more companies to follow,” says Linda Walker, senior director of corporate engagements for forests at World Wildlife Fund. “It’s no longer enough for them to simply commit to ‘reduced impact’.”

Naturally, the eternal critique of ethical consumerism is that buying sustainable products is not enough to save our planet. “We cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems,” says Professor Tommy Wiedmann, lead author of the recent report “Scientists’ Warning On Affluence”. “We also have to change our affluent lifestyles and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change.”

‘It’s no longer enough for companies to simply commit to “reduced impact”’

So Apple is walking a tightrope for a company that primarily exists on the strength of its latest offerings. It will continue to sell a new iPhone every year until that device has been replaced by another innovation, just as the iPod was. It will also market that same device with billboards, TV commercials and digital messaging around the world. Apple’s last reported advertising spend was a staggering $1.8bn in 2015, 50 per cent more than its total from 2014.

Nevertheless, its leadership maintains that it wants you to hold on to that iPhone for a long time. Jackson says it’s the “number one thing you can do [to help]”. Hence Apple leads its industry in continuing to provide software updates for devices years after they were first released.

“We support the software on a product for as long as we can. There’s no arbitrary, ‘OK. This many years have passed, it’s done’,” says Joswiak. “It’s really about the product, whether it has enough oomph and trying to keep it alive for as long as possible.”

In practical terms, that means the iPhone 6s that were first released in September 2015 can run Apple’s iOS 14 operating system – the same one that will ship on this year’s iPhone 12.

But what if your iPhone is straight up broken or has a battery that’s on its very last legs? With the rollout of Apple’s Independent Repair Provider Program to Europe this year, you’ll soon have a greatly improved array of local stores that can kick a troubled handset back into shape. This scheme, which was taken up by 140 businesses with 700 locations following its launch in the US last autumn, is an olive branch of sorts to the “Right to Repair” movement. This calls for users to be able to repair their kit at home using everyday tools.

But iFixit’s Kyle Wiens says this doesn’t go far enough. “Since a product’s greatest environmental impact is embodied in its manufacturing, we need to do everything we can to extend its life cycle,” he says. “In order to make that happen you have to support the product even when it’s outside the manufacturer’s control. Apple wants to control the product through its entire life cycle and that’s just not how the world works.”

In truth, this issue is probably the biggest bone of contention between Apple and the environmental groups that have been widely supportive of its other initiatives. Repairing the iPhone requires the use of proprietary tools that only authorised tradespeople are granted access to. So, although the design of the iPhone 11 is reasonably “fixable” by iFixit’s own standards, you can’t simply buy a new battery off the internet and install it yourself. It was this critique that held Apple back from the top spot in Greenpeace’s “Guide To Greener Electronics 2017” and it’s unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

The Apple-invested Concord Jing Tang windfarm in Hunan Province, China

For its part, Apple is sticking to its vision of a supervised middle ground, while opposing efforts to take that control out of its hands. “The one thing that we are always mindful of,” says Lisa Jackson, “is that we want our product repairs to be done right so that the devices enjoy a long life.”

By committing to go carbon neutral by 2030 – well ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel For Climate Change’s 2050 target for net-zero carbon-dioxide emissions – Apple joins a rarefied collective (including Microsoft and Gucci) to have stepped up to this impending crisis. It’s especially laudable as many carbon-neutral proclamations skip out on emissions from sources that companies don’t directly control, such as supply chain, transportation and consumer use.

How well is Apple doing? Answering that question is a bit like deciding whether to hand out a driver’s licence after the theory test: there is so much hard graft left to do. For now, Apple has made a historic promise and shown enough, by the way of results, to convince even the most scrupulous experts that it means to deliver. Still, it does have to deliver. As Tim Cook said in 2019, “The stakes are high and failure is not an option.”

Success for Apple will mean achieving several unprecedented and interconnected feats with very little time to spare. That is the challenge it has set itself, but there are no prizes here for good intentions. Hence environmentalists will continue to push for Apple to move even further away from fossil fuels and towards a closer embrace of the “Right to Repair” philosophy.

When you put it into perspective, Steve Jobs’ routine of eating merely apples and carrots for weeks on end seems easy. But, hey, that’s the dogged mindset Apple started with. And that’s what it’s counting on for the future.

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