Started in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, a couple of college dropouts who wanted to bring computers into the homes of the average person. Fast track a few decades, a few costly flops, a long rivalry with Microsoft and a few changes of hands, Apple has become a $2 trillion company that is synonymous with creativity and innovative growth in the tech industry. As one of the Big Five companies alongside Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook, the way Apple has contributed to effects of climate change should be inseparable from how they pivot themselves as key players and leaders in the sustainability game.
If you are anything like us, there is a big chance you are reading this post on an iPhone or Macbook and maybe with an AirPods or two in your ears. And as the COVID-19 pandemic is still upon us, we are relying heavily on technology for entertainment, work, and school. As the de-facto gatekeepers of how we communicate and educate ourselves in the virtual world, how does Apple’s social and environmental impact measure up? Let’s take a look at how they scored with the top Arbor Values of Emissions, Human Rights, and Corporate Ethics to find out.
To understand why Apple has an emissions score of 3 out 5, it is important to look at the difference between “full carbon neutrality” versus “net-zero carbon”. Full carbon neutrality means that a company has balanced out their carbon emission by investing in climate-friendly ventures and initiatives that offset the total emissions that they themselves release. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a company is expected or committed to reducing their emissions but rather that they have found ways to balance it out. Net-zero carbon on the other hand, is a full-fledged reduction in the total carbon emissions released into the atmosphere.
Back to Apple. As a company, they have plans to achieve full carbon neutrality by 2030. As we now know, this means that they are not planning to completely reduce the level of emissions they release, but to find ways to offset them. Since the demand for their products is so high with no signs of slowing down, they are aiming to reduce their carbon emissions by investing in technological improvements like switching to more climate-conscious sources of fuel. They also hope to achieve carbon neutrality within their owned and operated facilities and throughout their supply chain.
Some of their carbon neutral achievements include winning the UN Climate Neutral Now award recognizing their achievements in reducing their total carbon emissions. They have also won the CPA A-List rating for six consecutive years for the same reasons.
Apple has already reached full carbon neutrality for their corporate emissions, like corporate air travel. They have also managed a reduction of 35% of their total emissions and carbon footprint since their emissions peaked in 2015. This adds up to a scaling back of 35% of their total corporate emissions.
Although Apple has made great strides to reduce their overall emissions the demand from their products continues to grow. By simply achieving carbon neutrality by offsetting their emissions instead of finding ways to fully reduce them is what has awarded Apple their 3 out of 5 score.
Human Rights Score:
According to Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, “At Apple, we are optimistic about technology’s awesome potential for good. But we know that it won’t happen on its own. Every day, we work to infuse the devices we make with the humanity that makes us.”
In 2020, a coalition of 154 activist groups representing Tibetan, Uyghur, Southern Mongolia, Hong Konger, Taiwanese and Chinese people, penned an open letter to Apple and the company’s CEO, Tim Cook. From their letter:
“Apple has a continued failure to protect freedom of information and expression, despite a new policy affirming its commitment to human rights. Our combined membership equals over 18 million individuals worldwide who are gravely concerned about the seemingly growing complicity of western corporations like Apple in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) human rights atrocities.”
With China being a hub of Apple’s manufacturing and the CCP’s expansion of forced labour camps into Tibet, the coalition claims that the company is in the seemingly unavoidable situation that they are likely benefiting from the forced labour of the Tibetan and Uyghur people. Around the same time, Apple lobbyists were setting out to weaken a US congressional bill aimed at preventing forced labour in China. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act –which has since passed–“imposes various restrictions related to China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, including by prohibiting certain imports from Xinjiang and imposing sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations there.” A move like this showcases some of the disconnect between a company's business initiatives and the positions they take on human rights.
Apple plays a key role in how technology has the power to connect us and empower us. The shift towards a more sustainable future isn’t just in how a corporation positions themselves with carbon solutions --it is driven by the stance they take against human rights violations, especially in countries where their products are manufactured and labor laws are severely lacking.
Apple’s official commitment to human rights follows along the guidelines set out in the United Nations International Bill of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Their Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI) is a $100 million investment in BIPOC communities (with a primary focus on Black communities) through education, criminal justice reform, and economic equality.
“We continue to be reminded that certain uncomfortable truths about our society are ignored, silenced, and sidelined. Comfort can no longer come at the expense of change for communities of color.”
As global leaders in technology and business, we have an urgent responsibility to dismantle systemic racism and grow opportunities for people confronting it every day.”
Corporate Ethics Score:
As arguably the most financially successful corporation on earth, Apple’s greatest contributions to the good of society are going to come directly from it’s core behavioural activities as a business. To act sustainably and ethically it is going to have to address social and environmental issues beyond the bare minimum or run the risk of them becoming greater issues.
When it comes to corporate ethics, Apple’s 1 out of 5 score is a reflection of it’s failure to address systemic problems that leave employees across their value chain in vulnerable situations and the environment and consumers on the back burner.
“…suppliers are required to provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, act fairly and ethically, and use environmentally responsible practices wherever they make products or perform services for Apple …. Apple will assess its suppliers’ compliance with this Code, and any violations of this Code may jeopardize the supplier’s business relationship with Apple, up to and including termination” - Apple Code of Conduct
Many of us Apple affictionatos remember the “Batterygate” fiasco of 2016, where users were experiencing their iPhone batteries losing life way faster than normal. In March 2020, Apple agreed to pay up a hefty USD$500 million settlement for claims based on the accusations that it was intentionally slowing down older iPhone models to either force the hand of iPhone owners to upgrade to newer phones or purchase new batteries. Apple claims no wrongdoing and said they were only intentionally slowing down the old batteries to preserve the lives of the batteries and they were settling the lawsuit to avoid the headache of an expensive legal battle. In November of 2020, Apple agreed to settle a second settlement for the same accusations for $113 million. As a response, Apple offered consumers a discount on replacement batteries and released a lengthy post and public apology stating that,
"First and foremost, we have never — and would never — do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades… We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize.”
Currently there are still multiple lawsuits across Europe in Spain, Belgium, and Italy coordinated by the Euro-consumers against Apple for the “planned obsolescence” of slowing down phones with another lawsuit on the docket in Portugal.
Apple has a third party run EthicsPoint helpline (operated by NAVEX Global) where employees can securely and anonymously voice concerns or report misconduct and policy violations within the company.