In this Macworld article from June 2013, we looked at Apple's oddly contradictory history with the green lobby: why its approach to environmental matters was for so long at odds with its stated corporate philosophies (and the beliefs of its founders), and why that more recently appeared to be changing. Since publishing the story, there have been a number of important developments; among other things, CEO Tim Cook has made it clearer than ever that Apple takes its green responsibilities seriously. For this reason we've added an optimistic epilogue to the end of the article.
One of the many talking points at Apple boss Tim Cook's interview at D11 (in May 2013) was the addition of an environmental policymaker to the firm's executive team. Lisa Jackson, formerly the administrator in charge of the US Environmental Protection Agency, will report directly to Cook and oversee Apple's eco-related strategies.
It was the latest in a series of moves that have seen Apple, once environmental campaign groups' favourite tech bogeyman, transform its eco credentials. (Indeed, Greenpeace has praised the appointment: "Jackson can make Apple the top environmental leader in the tech sector by helping the company use its influence to push electric utilities and governments to provide the clean energy that both Apple and America need right now," said Greenpeace senior IT analyst Gary Cook, who called Apple's new green tsar "a proven advocate".)
Concerns remain, but from a distinctly non-green past Apple has been working steadily to improve its reputation. With the appointment of Jackson, the company finally seems to be living up to the hippy ideals of founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. For years that hasn't been the case.
Apple's problems with the green lobby
In the most recent Guide To Greener Electronics, Greenpeace ranks Apple as 6th out of the 16 companies rated; a drop from its fourth-place finish at the end of 2011, but a distinct improvement from April 2011, when it finished last. That wasn't a one-off; Apple scored just 2.7 out of 10 in the first such report, back in 2006. [Full report as a pdf.]
Greenpeace's biggest issue with Apple two years ago was its reliance on coal to power its servers, along with its high (and increasing) estimated electricity consumption. As the Guardian explained at the time: "The report estimated dependence on coal for Apple's data centres at 54.5%, followed by Facebook at 53.2%, IBM at 51.6%, HP at 49.4%, and Twitter at 42.5%."
Other problems that Greenpeace has had with Apple in the past have included toxic components within the iPhone and other products, "withholding its full list of regulated substances" and poor policies relating to product take-back and recycling.
Apple continues to face criticisms over its environmental record; in February it came under fire after one of its suppliers in China polluted a river so badly that it turned milk-white, while in the same month Friends of the Earth accused it (along with Samsung) of "trashing tropical forests and coral reefs in Indonesia" due to the use of tin in the iPhone and iPad. (Apple is a victim of its success in some ways, of course. It's such a high-profile target that all the headlines for both stories were about Apple, even though other tech companies were as or more culpable.)
Happily for the environment, but sadly for this article, the river in China seems to have been cleaned up before any photographic evidence was captured. This 'after' shot comes from China.org.cn
Still, Apple, initially under Steve Jobs' guidance and then under Cook, has taken environmental criticisms to heart.
From bad Apple to green Apple
In 2007, shortly after getting its first spanking in a Greenpeace annual report, Apple published a document on its site that was at once case for the defence, and statement of intent. Steve Jobs named the areas where he believed Apple was already ahead of the curve in environmental terms; in others, he set out plans to improve.
"Apple completely eliminated the use of CRTs in mid-2006," he wrote. "A note of comparison - Dell, Gateway, Hewlett Packard and Lenovo still ship CRT displays today."
"Apple plans to completely eliminate the use of arsenic in all of its displays by the end of 2008."
"Apple plans to completely eliminate the use of PVC and BFRs in its products by the end of 2008."
And so on. But it wasn't just talk: Apple really did improve things.
It stopped using arsenic, PVC and BFRs; the iPhone 3GS was free of all three. Its data centres are now based on renewable energy (in 2012, Forbes reported on the company's plans to build the world's largest private solar array and fuel-cell farm for a new North Carolina data centre). And accusations of secretiveness were dealt with by beginning to regularly publish product reports so consumers could check the materials used and the environmental damage done. (You can read reports on its whole product range here.)
Which raises the question: given how seriously Jobs took Greenpeace's views - and given what we know about his ideals - why hasn't Apple always been a green company?
Steve Jobs: The inconsistent hippy
Apple's complex attitude to environmental issues seems at odds with company founder Steve Jobs' philosophical leanings, but he was himself a mass of contradictions. In that sense Apple was entirely cast in his image.
The classic counterculture success story, Jobs ticked many boxes for the 1970s hippy cliché: unconventional, rebellious, meat-averse, passionately interested in Zen Buddhism, acid and meditation, barefoot, unshowered, apparently far less interested in the money he could make than the positive effects he could have on the universe.
In fact, Jobs' attitude to money was a little subtler than that. Occasionally he was obsessed with it - not for itself, but as a measure of how highly he was valued. He used to tell a good joke about his salary as interim CEO, which was the amusingly nominal figure of $1 per annum. ("I make 50 cents for showing up to one meeting… and the other 50 cents is based on my performance.") But when the board tried to reward his turning around of the company with hefty remuneration, Jobs wrangled for more; he decided he wanted a personal jet.
Steve Jobs' private jet, which presumably didn't run on hydroelectric power. Picture courtesy of All Things Steve Jobs
There was actually something quite self-centred about Steve Jobs' hippy philosophy, more self-actualisation than universal love. (Could this have been inherited from his one-time idol and fellow enlightenment seeker Robert Friedland, whose commune-style farm Jobs left over a grievance that unpaid workers were being exploited?) Certainly Jobs' managerial style would make more sense viewed through the former lens. If an employee didn't measure up, Jobs didn't worry too much about his or her well-being: it was straight out of the door.
It's well known that Steve Jobs was capable of moulding the facts to fit his own view of the world. My own take is that Jobs was absolutely convinced that he was doing good in the world, and that it never occurred to him - at least until Greenpeace blasted a hole through the reality distortion field - that his company was one of the bad guys. In a benign sort of way, he thought laws didn't apply to him. Why would the principles of sustainable industry be any different?
Cult Of Mac calls Robert Friedland an 'LSD love guru'. Funnily enough he had his own problems with the green lobby. Many years after they fell out, Steve Jobs called him "symbolically, and in reality, a gold miner".
Conclusion: a green Apple should be celebrated
Some recent press coverage might suggest otherwise, but Apple isn't going anywhere soon. It's going to remain among the first rank of global corporations, creating and selling vast numbers of high-tech products. It has the power to do a great deal of damage to the Earth.
It's for this reason that we should celebrate the direction Apple has taken since coming bottom of the class in that 2006 Greenpeace report.
It's certainly not perfect: a year ago, long after pledging greater transparency, Apple made the misstep of removing its products from the EPEAT certification system, although it wisely restored them a month later. And it can do more to monitor the practices of its suppliers (although as usual, every story about irresponsible corporate behaviour by an Apple supplier should be scanned for the list of non-Apple vendors equally involved but left to the 15th paragraph because they make for less exciting copy). But overall it's a lot closer to the sort of company you'd expect a couple of long-haired idealists to build.
Epilogue: Turning a corner
Looking into Apple's latest eco credentials while updating this article in April 2014, I was surprised by how much more good news there was this time around. Clearly the company has come good on its promises - or, a cynic might suggest, learned to hide its mistakes more effectively.
The latter theory is somewhat scuppered, however, by revelations in Apple's recent Supplier Responsibility 2014 Progress Report [PDF] that what the company calls 'core violations' of its environmental policies have actually gone up since last year - from 4 to 17. But further analysis of the figures show that these are the result of both greater numbers of audits and more stringent assessment of violations. Eleven of the 17 core violations involved the misuse of untreated waste water, something that Apple has explicitly cracked down on this year. The figures show that there's plenty of room for improvement, but Apple has become harder on itself, and on its suppliers.
And on the plus side of things, the latest report describes Apple's new clean water pilot programme, and its initiatives related to tin mining in Indonesia.
A more straightforwardly positive vibe was provided this month by Greenpeace, which named Apple - alongside Google and Facebook - as one of the three cleanest datacentre operators in the world, giving the Cupertino company marks of A, A, A and B for transparency, policy, advocacy and efficiency respectively. It also noted that Apple has reached a 100 per cent clean energy index, unlike either of the other top achievers. Quite a contrast with that daming report Greenpeace gave Apple back in 2006, and an early success for Lisa Jackson's team. (Amazon was the most high-profile laggard this time around.)
If baubles like this seem irrelevant - and assuming you don't agree with the larger importance of tackling environmental issues - it might be worth thinking about the unseen benefits large corporations can reap by doing good deeds, which were discussed by TechRepublic in a thoughtful article last month on Apple's current philosophy.
"Cook's broader worldview on [environmental and social] issues increasingly looks like perfect timing for a company where so much of the sales of its products are tied up in the image of its brand," argued Jason Hiner.
"The bottom line is that people are drawn to brands. They prefer to do business with companies they like and trust, they prefer to buy products and services that they feel good about, and they prefer to align themselves with brands that confirm and amplify their values.
"Apple's less-than-stellar reputation in corporate giving, the reports of Chinese workers in its supply chain being poorly-paid and badly-treated, and Greenpeace excoriating Apple in 2007 over toxic materials in the iPhone were all issues threatening to erode Apple's reputation over the past decade.
"According to KPMG research from December 2013, 70% of U.S. consumers under 30 years old now contemplate social issues before they make purchases. This makes the timing of Cook's changes in corporate responsibility pretty important."
A cynical view, perhaps, but one that probably has at least a grain of truth. Then again - and I will leave you with this final thought - an incident in March suggests that for Apple's number one at least, social responsibility is about far more than corporate success.
At Apple's annual shareholder meeting last month, Tim Cook responded angrily to comments and questions - and a resolution demanding that Apple reveal the costs of environmental programmes - from the NCPPR (the National Center for Public Policy Research, a group that has compaigned against climate-change measures). The group also questioned Apple's involvement with "certain trade associations and business organisations promoting the amorphous concept of environmental sustainability".
"What ensued was the only time I can recall seeing Tim Cook angry," reports the Mac Observer, "and he categorically rejected the worldview behind the NCPPR's advocacy. He said that there are many things Apple does because they are right and just, and that a return on investment (ROI) was not the primary consideration on such issues.
"'When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,' he said, 'I don't consider the bloody ROI.' He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader."
Finally, Cook said categorically that Apple investors who rejected the company's belief in corporate responsibility should take their portfolios elsewhere. "If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons," Cook declared, "you should get out of this stock." And you don't get many clearer statements of intent than that.