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Apple isn’t perfect on environment issues, but it’s depressingly ahead of its peers

The distance between where the mobile industry is and where it needs to be is stark.

NIC COURY via Getty Images

During its iPhone 15 event this week, Apple released a sketch where CEO Tim Cook and VP Lisa Jackson bragged about the company’s environmental goals with Mother Nature, played by Octavia Spencer. It was a flex to help bolster the marketing around the Apple Watch Series 9, some versions of which are sold as carbon neutral. It’s the first product to carry the branding, but others will follow as Apple pushes toward its goal of becoming entirely carbon neutral by 2030. It was after the event, however, that I wondered how much of this was Apple smugly congratulating itself for work that it’s meant to be doing.

There are plenty of companies in the mobile space, and none are as adept at making regular decisions look pious as Apple. So, I figured I’d read all the companies’ sustainability reports from the last year to see if that bluster was worth puncturing. But, much as we may want to sneer at Apple, it turns out no major manufacturer is close to matching its claims. In fact, I’ve had a fairly miserable few days learning how little, even now, some of the biggest names in the space are doing.

Apple’s goals are aggressive, and they are matched by some of its domestic rivals, although they have far smaller hardware businesses. Facebook owner Meta, at one extreme, which is primarily a services company, achieved net zero in its global operations in 2020, and wants to reach net zero across its entire value chain by 2030. Microsoft’s goals are even bigger, as it pledges to become a carbon negative company by 2030. Google, meanwhile, is hoping to reach carbon-free energy in every place it operates by 2030 but it believes it’ll only halve its emissions by that same deadline. And Amazon, which has been the highest-profile laggard in addressing sustainability, has pledged to reach net zero by 2040.

Before we dig in, it’s worth noting there’s no guarantee of consistency between different companies’ reports and the figures aren’t always comprehensive. And we can’t ignore the big financial disparity between Apple and its largest competitor in mobile, Samsung. Similarly, the financial gap between Samsung and the lower-end players in the market is stark, and caring about the environment costs money. But, even so, the limp pledges made by these companies aren’t even as good as they appear to be. (Earlier this year, the New Climate Institute gave Samsung’s climate pledges a failing grade for transparency and integrity, and called out the paucity of its ambition.)

I won’t bore you with every statistic — although I really could — but Apple is standing head and shoulders above pretty much everyone. Take e-waste, where Apple claimed to direct more than 40,000 tons of disused gadgets to recycling rather than landfill. It doesn’t get into specifics of how much was recovered from that, but it’s a fairly standout figure nevertheless. Samsung seems to have collected about a quarter of that figure, and by my wonky math, recovers around 80 percent from that to be reused.

Meanwhile, Xiaomi, the third biggest mobile player in 2022, proudly reported that it had directed 4,500 tons of e-waste to recycling. That figure looks good compared to Oppo, the world number four, which managed to do the same for just 195 tons. Transsion, the parent company of TECNO and Infinix, has merely pledged to run recycling programs. It’s worth remembering that the WEEE Forum predicted, across 2022, that up to 5.3 billion mobile devices would fall out of use, essentially becoming trash.

I was surprised at Apple’s willingness to even mention emissions from supplier factories since it contracts out its manufacturing. It would have been easy enough to launder its dirty emissions onto other companies’ balance sheets and point to its corporate usage alone. Instead, it has received commitments from many suppliers pledging to use 100 percent renewable energy. Apple says its supply chain now has 13.7GW of renewable energy, with a further 6.3GW due in the near future. Samsung, meanwhile, says that it’s looking to move to 100 percent renewable energy at all of its business sites by 2027, and that it already uses green power for 31 percent of its needs. Xiaomi doesn’t appear to have made a commitment to making a firm transition to renewable energy, while Oppo believes that it’s not yet hit its carbon emissions peak until next year.

If there’s one place that Apple still lags alongside the rest of the industry, at least for right now, it’s in repair. Until we know how easy it is for an end-user to replace common components on the iPhone 15, at least, then Apple remains as bad as everyone else. Its self-service repair platform remains frustratingly complex, and it’s still overcharging for basic repairs. (Or just refusing to repair devices as a precursor to getting buyers to replace their devices.) Samsung made a fairly big deal about repairability in its own report, pointing to the Galaxy S23 as an example. It’s worth noting that the gurus at iFixit rated the S23 a 4/10 for repairability, given that while the battery is replaceable, it’s also glued into place.

Apple Watch Series 9 models are displayed amongst other new products during a launch event at Apple Park in Cupertino, California, on September 12, 2023. (Photo by Nic Coury / AFP) (Photo by NIC COURY/AFP via Getty Images)
Apple Watch Series 9 models are displayed amongst other new products during a launch event at Apple Park in Cupertino, California, on September 12, 2023. (Photo by Nic Coury / AFP) (Photo by NIC COURY/AFP via Getty Images) (NIC COURY via Getty Images)

For its part, Apple is making some fairly bold claims about how the Watch Series 9 deserves its classification. It says the device comprises 30 percent recycled or renewable materials, including a case made out of 100 percent recycled aluminum. The watch was created in factories using 100 percent renewable energy and at least half of them are shipped by sea, rather than air. The company added it’s not just paying for clean energy for its devices to be made, but has also invested in power generation equal to what users may consume while charging it, too.

The company said that its baseline for the timepiece’s manufacturing emissions was 36.7kg based on its own metrics. From there, it’s managed to reduce the emissions cost from energy altogether, as well as reducing the materials and process emissions. The Series 9, as far as Apple is concerned, only emits 8.1kg into the atmosphere, which is then offset with carbon credits.

In its materials, the company cites the Restore Fund, a project Apple founded, which invests in “high-quality, nature-based carbon removal projects.” Restore Fund is operated in partnership with Conservation International, Goldman Sachs and HSBC, but it isn’t entirely philanthropic. Goldman’s own website describes the fund as designed to be profit-bearing, offering a “future potential financial return from harvesting activities and the sale of properties.”

It’s worth being cynical about offset purchasing, especially since the industry isn’t as clean as you may hope. Earlier this year, The Guardian published an investigation into Verra, the body which verifies carbon offset programs run by a wide variety of big corporations. It found many of the credits bought by companies to reduce their emissions did not translate to real-world action at all. The report suggested that of the 94.9 million carbon credits purchased, there were only real emissions reductions of 5.5 million MTCO2e (metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent). Verra disputed these findings.

It’s worth reiterating that Apple is in something of a privileged position here, given it has a staggering amount of cash on hand. It can use that power to make the sorts of headline grabbing investments in renewable energy its competitors may not have. But its wealth is also a target for progressive critics, including bodies like Population Matters, who point out the company’s annual marketing budget alone could bring clean water to the UN’s 46 least developed countries.

But, from a general view, there’s only one company in the mobile devices space that can stand head and shoulders above Apple in the green stakes: Fairphone. It's still a relatively niche player, but has made building an ethically and environmentally responsible device its guiding mission. The big question is how long it’ll take for all of the biggest players to catch up to where this one small company is right now.