Why Apple was bad for the environment (and why that's changing)

From self-centred hippyism to corporate responsibility: it's been a long journey for Apple

Why doesn't Apple have a better environmental record? For a company built by a group of long-haired Californian hippies, it's taken Apple a while to come to terms with its responsibilities to the Earth.

[ALSO: So you think you know Apple?]

One of the many talking points at Apple boss Tim Cook's interview last week 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's 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.

[Related: Watch: Full video of Tim Cook's D11 interview]

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?

[Related: Apple issues annual environmental report, touts renewable energy use]

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 clich: 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.

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.

This story, "Why Apple was bad for the environment (and why that's changing)" was originally published by Macworld U.K..

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