Although the economic value and contributions of the consumer electronics industry and technology companies are undeniable, their impacts on the environment are as incontestable. For example, manufacturing electronic devices require mining materials, some of which are rare. They also consume non-biodegradable and hard-to-recycle human-made materials such as plastics and other synthetic polymers. The energy requirements of running and operating manufacturing plants, as well as facilities that power the modern digital age such as network infrastructure and data centers constitute a notable portion of the total global energy consumption.
Nonetheless, executives of multinational and global organizations operating within the greater technology industry have recognized their environmental impacts. Furthermore, because their profitability and longevity depend on access to finite natural resources, they have taken measures to promote and protect the environment. Consider the sustainability strategy of Apple as an example, specifically its key environmental initiatives.
Key Elements in the Environmental Strategy of Apple
Prior to the leadership of Tim Cook, the former chief executive, Steve Jobs, had a staunch policy against corporate social responsibility. He believed that his company should focus more on building capabilities to innovate and market products and services as key sources of its competitive advantage. This position proved to be beneficial because Apple managed to catapult itself to global success under the leadership of Jobs.
Cook eventually deployed several corporate social responsibility programs when he became the new chief executive. One of these programs focuses on designing and implementing a specific sustainability strategy aimed at promoting environmental protection and conservation through responsible and sustainable business practices.
Hence, through an environmental strategy, Apple has identified three major pressing concerns that it has pledged to address: the ongoing climate emergency due to global warming and climate change, limitations in accessing mission-critical and finite natural resources, and prevalence of excessive and wasteful consumerism.
Below are the three major environmental issues that constitute the three major components of the environmental strategy of Apple:
• Climate Change: The company has committed to using its resources to combat climate change through a specific goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. Doing so requires designing and implementing new technologies, mobilizing financing structures, and rapid deployment of renewable energy capabilities.
• Resources: Apple also intends to make the most out of the resources it uses. Apart from the relevance of resource utilization in achieving carbon neutrality, the company aims to make products using recycled and renewable materials, increase product lifespans, and develop recycling technologies to end dependence on carbon-intensive mining.
• Smarter Chemistry: The company also commits to using safer materials to create safer products. This has entailed building a comprehensive picture of chemicals across our supply chain, promoting the use of better chemical management processes and safer chemical alternatives, and designing smarter approaches to production.
Note that there are specific programs or initiatives and activities within each of the three identified major components. The entire environmental strategy of Apple involves a multifaceted and interrelated set of action plans that collectively intends not only to protect and conserve the environment but also bring forth positive ecological impacts.
Below are some of the notable specific programs, initiatives, and activities within the environmental strategy of Apple:
1. Global Recycling Program
Apple has been running a recycling program since the early 1990s. Beginning in 2005, it started offering cash discounts for trading or swapping old devices for newer ones and buyback deals for discarded products. The company further expanded its recycling program in the following years as part of its overall resource conservation program.
Nevertheless, the current Apple Recycling Program is a global initiative that involves building and operating recycling centers, administrative offices, and other facilities for recovering recyclable and processing recycled materials. The company has also partnered with third-party retailers across the world to expand the global reach of its recycling program.
Some of the notable turning points of the program include the 9000-square-meters Material Recovery Lab in Austin, Texas, further investments in upgrading its facilities to replicate the capabilities of government-certified recycling and material recovery centers, and the utilization of robots such as Liam and Daisy to efficiently disassemble iPhone models using artificial intelligence and guided human input.
The program has also identified critical materials used in its products to transition to recycled raw materials. These include aluminum, cobalt, copper, glass, gold, lithium, paper, plastics, rare earth elements, steel, tantalum, tin, tungsten, and zinc. Once recovered, these materials undergo an upcycling process to restore and/or improve their value and usability.
Numerous products are now made using recycled materials. The 2021 Apple Environmental Progress Report noted that the company had refurbished 10.4 million products in 2020, used enclosures made of 100 percent recycled aluminum, manufactured logic boards made of 100 percent tin solders, used 100 recycled rare earth elements in iPhone 12 and Apple Watch Series 6, and manufactured MacBook Air with Retina Display with 40 percent recycled materials.
2. Pivot to Clean and Renewable Energy
Remember that a key element in the environmental strategy of Apple is to reduce its carbon footprint and eventually achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. The company has recognized the need to utilize renewable energy to achieve this ambiguous goal. Hence, several of its offices, data centers, stores, and other facilities are running on renewable energy power.
The company has launched the Supplier Clean Energy Program in 2015 to assist its outsourced manufacturing partners transition to renewable energy. More than 110 of its suppliers have committed to using clean energy to date. Estimates revealed that its efforts have helped avoid more than 8 million metric tons of carbon emissions.
Of course, there is a need to deploy in-house renewable energy capabilities. Hence, the company has launched so-called Apple-created projects. 10 percent of these projects are company-owned and are based on solar, biogas fuel cells, and low-impact hydro technologies.
About 3 percent of these projects have been made possible through equity investments. Apple has invested in solar photovoltaic technologies and wind power projects in several markets. The investment ratio is based on a comparison between the energy the company uses and the equivalent energy generation requirement.
87 percent of these projects involve long-term energy contracts. The company supports primary, upcoming, and local solar photovoltaic and wind power projects power purchase agreements, virtual power purchase agreements, and other forms of long-term commitments
Apple has also integrated energy-saving technologies into some of its products. Note that energy consumption from its consumer electronic products accounts for 19 percent of its carbon footprint. Over the years, the company has designed devices that run on less energy. The 8th generation of iPad, for example, consumes 66 percent less energy. The company has also collectively reduced the energy consumption of its entire product portfolio by 70 percent.
3. Nature-Based Carbon Removal Solutions
Some carbon emissions are unavoidable. To prevent the release of these emissions to the atmosphere, the company has also created a USD 200 million Restore Fund with Conservation International and Goldman Sachs to invest in natural carbon capture solutions such as the protection and restoration of forests, grasslands, and wetlands.
Restoring 8 million square kilometers of savanna or mixed woodland-grassland ecosystem can remove hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year according to the figures from the company. In addition, restoring 109 square kilometers of mangrove forest can store up to 1 million metric tons of carbon over its lifetime.
The initial goal of the Restore Fund is to remove more than 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and to scale this up further. It has achieved several milestones These include the addition of 380 square kilometers to the Alto Mayo Protected Area in Peru and the protection and restoration of 27,000 acres of mangrove forest in Columbia.
Financing organizations dedicated to carbon removal has also been made possible through the Restore Fund. For example, in Kenya, Apple has partnered with both Conservation International and the Kenyan forestry business Komaza to invest in micro-forestry and take advantage of its impacts on carbon removal, biodiversity conservation, and socio-economic development.
Apple has also partnered with government and non-government organizations in protection and restoration efforts across the world. Some of these notable partners include the World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Fund for forest restoration efforts in China and the United States, and INVEMAR Research Institute and Corporación Autónoma Regional del Valles del Sinú for mangrove protection and restoration in Columbia.
4. Redesigned Production Practices and Processes
Promoting the security of mission-critical finite resources and addressing excessive wasteful consumption are also key priorities in the environmental strategy of Apple. Through its Recycling Program, the company has promoted the upcycling of discarded products through refurbishment or recovery of materials for use as new production inputs.
The company has also overhauled its factors of production. Following the principles of a circular economy and regenerative design, Apple has redesigned its production process to integrate the following principles: sourcing recycled and renewable materials, efficient use of these materials, improving product longevity by designing long-lasting products, and enhancing product end-of-life services.
As part of its responsible materials sourcing, the company audits potential and current suppliers to evaluate the environmental impacts and profile of their raw materials. It uses standards based on the guidelines set out by the international community. It has also worked with the Responsible Materials Initiative to promote responsible mining initiatives. The company has also identified key recyclable materials and removed those that are environmentally harmful.
There are also several key decisions made in production outputs. Some of which are controversial. For example, to reduce the use of plastics, the company replaced the protective plastic film attached to new devices with paper. In addition, the company has also stopped shipping newer models of the iPhone and Apple Watch with chargers. These power adapters use a considerable amount of plastics, copper, tin, and zinc.
Improving the longevity of its products has also entailed Apple to integrate additional features and benefits. iPhone models starting from the iPhone X have been designed to resist splash, water, and dust using international testing standards. It has also used materials to improve the durability of its products. Durability minimizes repairs and replacements.
Apple has also rolled out several product end-of-life services and initiatives. These include expanding repair services across the globe through official stores and authorized distributors to make repairs more accessible and convenient, setting up recycling centers to encourage trade-in and buyback transactions, ensuring that its products can enjoy extended macOS and iOS software support, and integrating these services and initiatives in its marketing strategy.
Understanding the Environmental Strategy of Apple
There are obvious benefits from the components and initiatives mentioned above. To illustrate, by promoting upcycling and designing a manufacturing process based on a circular economic model, Apple improves the sustainability of its supply chain while lessening its exposure to environmental and supply risks. Recovered materials from old devices can supplement the material requirements and supply inventory of the company.
Product refurbishing also provides another source of revenue. Apple acquires old devices through a sales promotion strategy and after-sales services, and upcycles them for them to be resold in the market. Sales from these refurbished products can be significant. Remember that the company had refurbished 10.4 million products in 2020 alone. Aside from benefitting the environment through lesser wastes, as well as the consumers through a more affordable access to several Apple products, refurbishing translates to new market and sales opportunities for the company.
The environmental strategy of Apple fundamentally translates to a sustainability strategy. Aside from doing its part to protecting and conserving the environment, this particular corporate social responsibility program can provide the company with a competitive advantage, thereby making it a critical element of its business strategy. A special focus on sustainability will allow the company to endure and navigate through current and future challenges related to pressing environmental issues.
Of course, the initiative and activities mentioned above have cost implications. Adherents of the traditional view on corporate social responsibility would argue that business organizations should focus solely on profit-generating strategies. However, for Apple and other businesses that have developed and implemented their respective sustainability strategy, investing in green innovation can bring forth positive gains, especially when planned and executed in adherence to their medium-term to long-term organization mission and vision.
Some of the possible internal benefits of the environmental strategy of Apple include improved consumer and business perception, attracting environmentally aware investors, adherence to current and future government regulations, cost savings from procuring raw materials, equipping the organization with novel technologies to weather through future problems related to the environment, and future-proofing its technological and innovative capabilities.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- 2021. Environmental Progress Report. Apple Inc. Available via PDF
- Perez, S. 2019. “Apple Expands Global Recycling Programs, Announces New Material Recovery Lab in Austin.” Tech Crunch. Available online