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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Apple’s brand image opens its climate claims to extra scrutiny
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Apple’s brand image opens its climate claims to extra scrutiny

Its famed social values could make some of us susceptible to hype

Apple promises its offsets will be “real, additional, measurable, and quantified, with systems in place to avoid double-counting and that ensure permanence.” (REUTERS)Premium
Apple promises its offsets will be “real, additional, measurable, and quantified, with systems in place to avoid double-counting and that ensure permanence.” (REUTERS)

Apple’s true specialty isn’t consumer technology. It’s marketing. Few other enterprises have managed to separate people from their money at such scale. So when this marketing juggernaut turns its prowess to selling its own green credentials, you should expect nothing less than, say, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer playing Mother Nature in a slick viral video. But the credibility of Apple’s environmental claims is a little fuzzier than the razzle-dazzle would have you believe.

This week’s Apple Event, the company’s annual celebration of mass consumerism, featured not only Spencer’s Mother Nature but a barrage of promises about all the ways Apple is looking out for her: A new watch lineup Apple calls its first “carbon neutral" product, a label Apple vows will apply to all its products by 2030; no more leather in watch bands or accessories; no more plastic in packaging by 2025; shipping stuff by sea rather than by air; using more recycled materials; using renewable energy for some watch making, along with corporate offices, data centres and retail stores; a vow to cut carbon emissions by 75% from 2015 levels by 2030; a promise to use only “high quality" carbon credits to make up for whatever emissions Apple can’t eliminate; and a new tool called Grid Forecast that alerts users when green power is available.

Apple deserves kudos for making so much noise about its social values. In this, the company is on the right side of history, setting a good example for its peers. Apple also knows its target audience; its user base leans young, female and fairly well-to-do. But if capitalism has any hope of helping resolve the climate crisis it created, then this is how it should work: The invisible hand of the market guiding companies and customers towards sustainable behaviour.

Some of Apple’s moves will also do good. Renewable energy and aggressive targets for emission reduction are important. Grid Forecast could nudge electricity use in a positive direction. And the sheer volume of recycled materials in Apple’s iPhones and other products is genuinely impressive.

After that, the promises get murkier. For example, it isn’t entirely clear paper packaging is superior to plastic. Though most fibres in Apple’s “fiber-based" packaging are recycled, the rest come from precious carbon-storing trees. Ocean shipping does emit far less carbon than air transport, but it also spews pollution directly into oceans. Also, Apple’s emission goals depend on carbon offsets, which are credits companies and people get for investing in projects to reduce carbon—say, planting trees.

Carbon offsets have been under intense scrutiny for promising more than they can deliver. Too many give credit for measures that would happen anyway, such as not chopping trees. Without an authority to assure quality control for offsets, they will always be suspect. Rainforest offsets certified by Verra, one of the private standard-setters Apple uses, have been accused of being mostly “worthless."

Apple is savvy enough to acknowledge the controversy. It promises its offsets will be “real, additional, measurable, and quantified, with systems in place to avoid double-counting and that ensure permanence." Its carbon-removal projects include planting forests and other ecosystems in South America. Such ‘rewilding’ should hopefully store more carbon and be more sustainable than single-species tree plantations. Otherwise, trees risk dying, releasing their carbon right back into the atmosphere, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Lara Williams has written.

More than 300 of Apple’s suppliers have vowed to use 100% clean energy, but many can hit that goal only by using ‘renewable energy certificates,’ another type of credit.

Apple was a relative standout in the latest Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor by the New Climate Institute, a non-profit group that tracks corporate green promises. It scored decent marks for transparency and goals. It was one of only a few companies studied that seemed on track to helping the world avoid a long-term warming trend of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial averages.

At the same time, Apple was knocked for not cutting emissions even more aggressively, for relying too much on offsets, and for not setting a longer-term target for reduction. It has addressed the latter issue by promising a 90% reduction by 2050. But the value of the rest remains to be seen. This is a company, after all, with a history of making green claims while also making it difficult to re-use and repair its devices. Given that manufacturing new phones is Apple’s biggest carbon source by far, this was a critical contradiction.

Apple has started to address the repair problem while again declaring itself a corporate leader in fighting climate change. That’s all the more reason to hold it to a higher standard. ©bloomberg

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Updated: 15 Sep 2023, 12:59 AM IST
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