Apple really wants you to think it’s the good tech giant. As Amazon’s labor practices and Facebook’s moderation policies have been the target of increasing public anger, Apple has been positioning itself as the socially conscious alternative. It claims to care deeply about privacy, and has been taking specific actions targeted at LGBTQ and racial justice movements. But one of its biggest areas of focus has been the environment.
The company has long touted the recycled materials used in its products. It’s also been adding a whole range of initiatives to present itself as a sustainable brand. Apple committed to using 100 percent renewable energy, including at its sprawling new campus, while claiming to care about recycling with its Daisy disassembly robot. In October 2020, it even said it would no longer package chargers or headphones with new iPhones to stop as many from going to landfills.
At surface level, these sound like great initiatives. But digging below reveals a number of problems.
Despite all the trees at Apple’s campus, the way it’s constructed requires workers to drive in: the building actually has more parking than office space. Apple also makes its devices incredibly difficult to repair, and while recycling is good, ensuring people don’t always have to replace their devices is much better. It was fined in Brazil for taking chargers out of the box, and critics say the company’s decision on chargers and headphones was driven more by the urge to reduce shipping costs than environmentalism. Notably, the price didn’t drop when the accessories were removed.
The more you dig into these corporate environmental plans, the more they prove to be clever greenwashing campaigns for unsustainable corporate practices. But that hasn’t stopped Apple from doubling down on its approach.
Offsetting Supply Chain Emissions
In April this year, Apple announced its Restore Fund, with the goal of making “investments in forestry projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere.” It claimed that the $200 million fund would “remove at least 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually from the atmosphere.” Conservation International is a partner in the project, presumably to give the fund legitimacy in the eyes of liberal environmentalists — but the involvement of Goldman Sachs and the requirement that projects produce financial returns present serious problems.
The Restore Fund is not a philanthropic or charitable organization; it’s an investment vehicle. Apple’s plan is to fund forestry projects “while generating a financial return for investors,” because the forests it proposes to manage will qualify for carbon credits to offset emissions in the company’s supply chain. Its existing efforts with Conservation International include forests in Colombia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and while it’s not yet clear where the Restore Fund will invest, there are serious problems with this method of carbon reduction.
Carbon offsets have been embraced as a means of emissions reductions by large companies and governments around the world, in part because they don’t actually require those entities to reduce their emissions. They allow them to pay someone else to reduce or capture emissions instead. But offset projects have been proven time and time again not to deliver the benefits they claim.
In 2019, ProPublica journalist Lisa Song published an in-depth investigation which found that “carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with.” Song laid out the history of failed offset standards, but focused specifically on forestry projects, which have been proven in many instances not to deliver the promised carbon reductions.
In Apple’s announcement, it explained that “the Restore Fund will use robust international standards developed by recognized organizations such as Verra, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the UN Climate Convention.” Song’s reporting found that all of these groups have been involved with questionable projects and standards.
Song provided the example of an offset project in Cambodia that “was designed to protect 13 forested sites covering a total of 246 square miles.” At the time of her reporting, it had sold 48,000 credits, even though forest cover had fallen from 88 percent in 2008 to 46 percent in 2017, according to satellite imagery.
When Song contacted Verra, which “set the quality assurance standards for the credits generated,” they said they needed to do their own research since the project consultants hadn’t submitted an update in five years. But the credits were still being sold to offset emissions.
Tree planting and forest management take a long time to capture emissions, but companies receive immediate offsets for their investments. In 2020, Greenpeace UK explained: “Offsetting projects simply don’t deliver what we need — a reduction in the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. Instead, they’re a distraction from the real solutions to climate change.” If Apple wants to help manage forests, that’s fine — but it should not be seeking financial returns for trying to offset emissions made elsewhere.
Profiting From Disasters
The Restore Fund and Apple’s other environmental initiatives are not sufficient to address the environmental footprint of the company and its business practices. Apple’s primary business model is selling hardware to consumers, and it has an incentive to ensure people regularly replace that hardware instead of ensuring it lasts as long as possible.
Apple frames simple spec bumps as revolutionary changes, has added a whole range of colors to its phones and computers, and does regular redesigns of product form factors. These are not done for fun or because they believe it’s what customers want, but because it provides an opportunity to convince people to buy new products even though they don’t need them. For many, Apple products are status symbols: having the newest phone or laptop is a way to display one’s style or wealth.
As well as that, Apple’s devices are also important communications tools. The company’s sales were significantly higher than expected during the pandemic, as people purchased new computers, phones, and tablets for remote work and education. Apple has seen huge gains from the pandemic, and it predicts that its sales would also benefit from accelerating climate disasters.
In a 2019 report outlining the risks and opportunities presented by the climate crisis, Apple explained that “mobile devices can serve as the backbone communication network in emergency and quasi-emergency situations.” Smartphones contain features like flashlights, radio, and the ability to access the internet that are invaluable during disasters, leading the company to predict they could lead to “increased customer loyalty and demand” if those disasters become more frequent.
Apple Won’t Save Us
In pointing to that report, I’m not trying to say that Apple is trying to fuel climate change to help its business. I don’t believe that for a moment. But its business practices are contributing to the warming of the planet, and it is disincentivized from changing them because doing so would disrupt reliable revenue streams.
Apple’s environmental initiatives are designed to greenwash fundamentally unsustainable production and consumption patterns that are essential to its bottom line. Those include everything from the mining of minerals in the Global South and the manufacture of its products in vast factories with questionable labor conditions and environmental practices to the frequent replacement and disposal of its electronic devices that could instead be built to last and repaired when they have issues to further extend their lifespan.
Apple has no incentive to build products that can easily be repaired, or to stop promoting incremental updates as hardware revolutions that people simply must have. That would reduce sales, revenues, and shareholder value. Instead, it’s trying to incentivize more regular consumption through programs like its iPhone upgrade program, which allows customers to pay a monthly fee and upgrade their phone every 12 months.
Major corporations like Apple want us to believe they care about the planet and are addressing their unsustainable practices while they continue to operate in virtually the same way as before. We need to stop believing that multinational companies are going to lead the charge toward a sustainable world. Capitalism will always constrain their ability to make the changes that are truly necessary.