Is Apple a Sustainable Company?

Claire Moloney's picture
Claire Moloney
October 1, 2017

Apple has consistently demonstrated creativity and innovation, making it a natural candidate for environmental leadership and influence in green building design.

Apple Store Union Square, San Francisco
Apple Store Union Square, San Francisco
Credit: Wikipedia

The late Steve Jobs made this connection back in 2007, when he publicly addressed the toxic materials found in Apple products.

“Apple is already a leader in innovation and engineering, and we are applying these same talents to become an environmental leader.” – Steve Jobs

Apple has made significant efforts to improve its sustainability record since 2007, whether it was removing toxic substances from products or powering some facilities with 100 percent renewable energy.

The company is now at the head of the pack for the third year in a row, along with Google and Facebook. Greenpeace has deemed Apple the most environmentally friendly of the world’s major tech companies. According to their new report Apple has “played a catalytic role within its IT supply chain, pushing other IT data center and cloud operators who help deliver pieces of Apple’s corner of the internet to follow their lead in powering their operations with renewable energy.”

Green Rankings: Top Green Companies

Greenpeace’s report notes that Apple and Google continue to lead the technology sector in matching their growth with an equivalent or larger supply of renewable energy. The report assigned Apple the overall grade of ‘A’. The company got As in the subcategories energy transparency, renewable energy commitment, energy efficiency and mitigation, and renewable procurement, and a ‘B’ in the advocacy category.

Green Building Data Centers CourseIt’s clean energy index, calculated based on estimates of facilities’ power demand, was an impressive 83%. Both Apple and Google have invested heavily in making their data centers more energy efficient and by powering those data centers with renewable energy, such as solar and wind.

Google got As in all subcategories except for energy transparency (where it got a B), though its clean energy index was lower at 56%.

Scoring all A’s and a whopping 100% clean energy index, newcomer to Greenpeace’s list of top scorers was Nevada-based telecommunications company Switch, which develops data centers. In contrast, “unlike other major video streaming platforms such as Apple, Facebook, or Google, Netflix, with an overall score of ‘D’ does not regularly provide energy consumption data, greenhouse gas emissions, or the actual energy mix of its global operations.”

Apple’s Efforts in Sustainability

In the past few years, Apple has made tremendous efforts toward sustainable growth. First off, the company has improved its sustainability reporting practices, and its CSR Report for 2017 is available here.

Apple’s website states “We’re advancing renewable energy usage by working with suppliers to create 4 gigawatts of renewable energy around the world by 2020 that will help power their facilities. In 2016, we tripled the number of supplier sites participating in our energy efficiency program, resulting in the reduction of more than 150,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. A number of large suppliers have already committed to power all Apple manufacturing with renewable energy by the end of 2018. These commitments will reduce carbon emissions by 7,000,000 metric tons per year, the equivalent of removing 1,500,000 cars from the road for a year.”

Here are some highlights of Apple’s efforts to scale back emissions and waste in each of these stages:

  • Manufacturing: Apple eliminated harmful toxins, including brominated flame retardants (BFRs), lead, PVCs and mercury, from their products. Reiterating what it said during the reveal of the iPhone X, Apple notes that the device is absent of beryllium, brominated flame retardants, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride. The glass is arsenic-free, and the frame is recyclable stainless steel. All of the device's packaging fibers come from 175 grams of bamboo, managed forest, recycled paper, or waste sugar cane. The packaging has cut down on plastics, with it using 56 percent less than the iPhone 5s at 8 grams of plastic films. To further increase efficiency in how its devices utilize power and to reduce needs for external charging, Apple has also patented a process for integrating solar panels in its mobile devices. 
  • Transportation: Packaging is becoming smaller, which makes transportation of products more efficient. The 21.5 inch iMac retail packaging consumes 53 percent less volume and weighs 35 percent less than packaging for the original 15 inch iMac. Additionally, Apple is participating in the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay Program to find more ways to improve product transport’s fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution.
  • Recycling: Apple exceeded their goal of 70 percent worldwide recycling of their products in 2010. They attempt to use recyclable materials in their products and packaging where possible. The MacBook Pro battery can be recharged up to 1000 times, producing less waste than more shorter-lived laptop batteries. Apple has taken e-waste recycling to a whole new level by creating a line of robots named Liam to dismantle the old Apple devices, thereby re-using their high quality parts. The company also does not ship e-waste to other countries for disposal. Read more about e-waste management and how Apple has started a new trend here.
  • Facilities: As of 2016, 93 percent of Apple’s facilities worldwide run on renewable energy rather than coal. Apple has connected 40 megawatts of solar energy to China’s national grid, producing more than enough electricity for all of Apple’s offices and retail stores in China. In Singapore, Apple has also installed more than 800 rooftop solar panels to power its offices and green data centers there.
  • Product Use: All of Apple’s products exceed ENERGY STAR specifications. Products labeled ENERGY STAR meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which include standards for energy efficiency, energy savings and quality of efforts. Apple has accomplished this by incorporating energy saving features into its products. For example, certain Macs have light sensors that adjust the brightness of the display, saving energy when the room is already well-lit. Similarly, a Mac’s battery efficiency automatically calibrates itself to match the power of your graphics, using less energy when you are viewing simple graphics, such as your email. As a result, Apple has reduced the average power consumed by devices by 64 percent since 2008, bringing down not only its overall carbon footprint, but the consumer’s electricity bill as well.

If you want to learn more about your Apple product’s environmental impact, check out Apple Product Environmental Reports.

Still a long way to go?

Within a short span of six years, Apple has made it all the way up Greenpeace’s list of top green companies. Apple ranks sixth in Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics, missing out on points for lack of transparency, falling behind Wipro, HP, Nokia, Acer and Dell, but ranking above the likes of Samsung and Sony.

With the constant launch of new products, the tech company has struggled to keep up with the accelerating rate of environmental change. Despite all its innovations in recycling and product manufacturing, Apple still has a long road ahead to optimizing its corporate sustainability.

Also, even if new products are manufactured in solar powered factories and transported with energy efficiency, they still need to be charged in electric grids — which are often powered by coal or natural gas, especially in developing countries.

The only way Apple can have truly sustainable products is to develop a new business model that closes the loop on the product’s life cycle. Such a model would work with products that are designed to last longer and offering services instead of new devices.

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