As the most valuable company in the world, Apple extends its massive footprint into every corner of industry that it touches. With that footprint comes a vast responsibility to conduct itself responsibly in terms of sourcing materials, labor and the energy necessary to ship well over two billion mobile devices on its course to becoming an unprecedented $3 trillion company.
A decade ago, Apple brought in Lisa Jackson, former head of the EPA under the Obama administration, to steward its strategy on environmental issues. Jackson serves as Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple, a role that’s only become more central as the climate crisis accelerates, with increasingly visible and often devastating impacts in every corner of the globe.
So how does a company that sells droves of objects reliant on pulling minerals out of the earth reconcile its business with its environmental impact?
On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, Jackson elaborated on Apple’s environmental commitment to make all of its products carbon neutral by 2030. "We have a roadmap for Apple 2030 just like we have a roadmap for products — I'm not allowed to talk about those — but the roadmap for Apple 2030 had to go through all the way up to Tim [Cook] and all the way up to our CFO," Jackson said.
For Jackson, a decade of work on that roadmap has been very hands-on. After being recruited from her government post directly by Apple CEO Tim Cook, she was tasked with charting that course from day one.
"I said, 'Okay, I'm here, what do you want me to do?' And he said, 'That's what I want you to tell me. I want you to learn who we are, which is incredibly important. And then tell us what, what is the roadmap to make us the leader, the ripple in the pond,'" Jackson recounted.
Last week at its annual fall event, Apple announced that its new lineup of Apple Watches would be its first carbon neutral devices. While smartwatches are just one sliver of Apple’s hardware lineup, the company says it’s the first milestone in an ambitious commitment to make each of its devices, everything from Macs to its upcoming mixed reality headset the Apple Vision Pro, clear the same bar by the end of the decade.
"... We can invest, so Apple can go first and find a new material or make a new material, like we have 100% recycled cobalt in the batteries in Series 9 watches, which is part of our materials story," Jackson said. "But by the time it gets to a product, like Series 9, it has to scale and it has to do so at a price that makes sense with the business that we run."
Ambitiously, Apple says that this commitment extends to the global supply chain it commands and to the lifetime use of every device it sells. If Apple realizes that vision, and it very well may — the company rarely calls a shot it can’t make — it will set an example for other titans of industry that have been slower to reckon with the negative environmental impacts of their success.
"I think our job is to lead, to innovate and then to help other companies," Jackson said. "Because of our demand, they can now meet that demand in a way that changes the system, that transitions the system."
Earlier this year, Apple also announced that it would rely wholly on recycled cobalt in all of its batteries by 2025 — five years before its 2030 goal. Cobalt is a mineral notorious not just for the environmental impact associated with the mining process but for its often horrific human cost. On the way to powering devices in rich nations, cobalt exacts a steep toll on the laborers, including children, who pull it out of the ground by hand, inhaling toxic dust and even losing their lives in the process.
Apple has increased scrutiny on its own cobalt supply chain in response to past reports about these human rights abuses and by last year a quarter of the cobalt in its devices came from recycled sources, up from 13 percent the year prior.
"We'd love to one day make your brand new Apple device from nothing that had to be mined from the ground," Jackson said.
En route to Apple’s 2030 goal, consumers can keep an eye out for a little green flower symbol that signals which of its products have cleared the bar so far. Apple also noted that it would move away from leather, previously used in some accessories like iPhone cases, in favor of more sustainable materials.
The company’s carbon neutral product strategy is many pronged. Apple will rely on more recycled materials, alternative shipping methods and sustainable energy sources in the production process. While that might get the company most of the way there, Apple does plan to “[invest] in nature-based projects” to offset the portion of its environmental impact that remains.
Carbon offsets are controversial — and often deployed disingenuously in industries otherwise disinterested in shrinking their environmental impact. Apple hasn’t gone all the way into the details about what portion of its emissions will be covered by compensatory green investments and what those investments will look like, but it’s certainly something to follow as the company looks to lead in the future.
"We're not offsetting any [supplier] energy at all, we're either offsetting a very small amount of direct emissions that we just technologically need to come up with new processes on or logistics and transportation," Jackson said. "Logistics turns out to be a big deal when you're operating at the scale that we are."
On the marketing side, Apple's warm and fuzzy new ad starring Octavia Spencer as Mother Nature may have come across as cloying to anyone skeptical of corporate climate lip service, but the company does sound realistic about its lofty goals and how it plans to get there.
"Tim has been really clear that the work we do has to be able to scale and ripple out, which means it's not charity work. This is not philanthropy. We're not out just spending money so we can make this claim to make other people feel great," Jackson said.
"It has to be something that businesses in our supply chain can take on without sacrificing their ability to also make a profit — that's what they're in business to do... For us it's about creating that continual ripple out and doing it in the way a business would."