At every Apple product launch, the company demonstrates a green slide in which it talks about things like energy use and recycling. I’ve noticed way too many people seem to ignore that slide, but it may be one of the most important ones you see at every product introduction.
Let me explain why.
Sustainability has become a business imperative for virtually every enterprise, from resource gathering to recycling and every step in between. Like many companies, Apple is developing sustainable business practices across its entire operation.
Zooming out, what strategic lessons can business leaders take from its approach?
Work with your partners
Apple’s environmental reports show it understands that to meet some of the environmental challenges of sustainable business, it isn’t enough just to improve the company’s own operations — it must also take steps to help partners and suppliers improve their own processes. In Apple’s case, this means working with smaller partners to build better business practices; the company’s recent announcement that its supply chain has doubled the use of clean power is part of that investment.
Discussing some of these attempts in 2021 at a meeting of the UN Climate Change Summit, Apple CEO Tim Cook explained:
“This is no time for changes at the margins. Together we can transition to a carbon neutral economy and usher in a new era of inclusive opportunity. This is a moment for ambition, cooperation, and leadership.”
What about the customer?
Apple’s is looking at how customers use its products, embracing this usage within its sustainability goals. Its most recent Environmental Progress Report explained that the energy used across its products life accounts for 22% of its carbon footprint. As a result, Apple continues work to reduce the quantity of energy its products use.
The M1 Mac mini uses 60% less energy than its predecessor, while average product energy use across all Apple’s major product lines has declined by more than 70% since 2008. How your customers use your products and how to ensure such usage is sustainable is a challenge companies need to face.
What happens when things get old?
I’m sure Apple is as guilty as anyone in the tech industry of at one time paying little attention to the impact of its business. Somewhere in America there will be tens of thousands of Apple products buried in landfills. But it turns out this wasn’t such a good idea, spreading pollution and squandering scarce resources.
Things have changed, which is why Apple now works harder to ensure products are recyclable. The company continues to discuss its work toward building a closed-loop manufacturing system, in which new products are manufactured out of the old. Combined with more sustainable manufacturing processes, this should help meet sustainability goals.
The company’s environmental responsibility teams are also more deeply involved in product development than before, which means Apple’s solutions are built to be more easily and more fully recycled as it works toward that closed-loop production process.
Get the ingredients right
One of the biggest bugaboos in tech is the use of very precious minerals and metals, such as cobalt, in electronic products. Many of the richest sources of these sit in the middle of highly unstable regions, giving rise to the name “conflict minerals.” The trade in these is so lucrative that in some cases children are used to mine them, working at gunpoint with scant regard for health or safety.
This is proving difficult to solve, but Apple does at least report on its efforts. Its most recent conflict-minerals report tells it evicted 163 smelters and refiners from its supply chain who failed to pass audits against trade of this kind.
Labor and human rights must also be considered. There have been frequent reports of poor working conditions across the Apple supply chain, and while things do seem to have improved, even this year we saw riots in factories in China, while a facility in India was shut down for poor working conditions.
At best, this shows that at a global scale, challenges of this kind must always be policed; at worst, it demonstrates that transparency must exist across every company across every part of the supply chain to prevent unethical business practices from becoming mandatory simply because everyone else engages in them.
“To start making the right moves before it’s too late, businesses need to move from an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ production model to being accountable for their whole end-to-end supply chain,” wrote Infosys’ Jonquil Hackenberg.
And, for tech, don’t ignore the sheer quantity of water required to make the products we use. Apple doesn’t. It knows TSMC used 63 million tons of water in 2019 to make processors and runs a Clean Water Program, which means suppliers are reusing more water each year.
Don’t skip the packaging and other details
For most of us, the most obvious articulation of Apple’s work towards sustainability is something we encounter early in the customer experience — packaging.
Apple has changed the way it packages its devices, eschewing plastic where possible and relying on renewable forests in which it continues to make deep investments.
Many of its new packaging designs seem to echo the complexity of Japanese paper folding (origami). Apple has always thought deeply about packaging (it even has a series of remote working videos about it) — and within its far more parsimonious approach it still creates an unboxing experiences that usually begin with a single tear. (Apple is also the home of the round pizza box.)
Sustainable business practice requires enterprises to examine every part of the product journey. The box you ship your product in is not exempt — nor is the journey it took. It’s only a matter of time before Apple (and others) embrace blockchain to record the entire product journey.
Supply chain matters
Apple has famously followed an on-demand model for its business operations, attempting to keep very little stock on hand. That was before the pandemic. For Apple, and for everyone else, COVID-19 has exposed the need to build resilient supply chains.
We know Apple is attempting to extend manufacturing into additional nations to help mitigate against future supply chain challenges, but as Frank Appel, CEO of Deutsche Post DHL Group, told the World Economic Forum:
“Leaders need to reshape supply chains to become more immune to single source disruptions, such as by multi-sourcing of suppliers, or using multiple trade lanes and modes of transport.”
I think for Apple this aspect of sustainability may be a work in progress.
[Also read: Enterprise tech? Don’t forget to make it human]
There’s also a business case for sustainability
Sustainability should not be seen as political, but does seem to be a topic that has become politicized. It’s beyond me to explore that, but if there’s a “one more thing” every business considering its own sustainability goals should think about, it is the cost of not addressing the challenge.
You see, those businesses that don’t try to become sustainable now because of cost are simply building bigger battles for themselves in future. Today’s consumers are increasingly switched-on to sustainability issues, and brands that do not address them will be punished as shoppers purchase products from those who do.
This awareness is unlikely to disappear as climate emergencies happen more frequently, which means the cost of inaction may be far higher than the cost of action if you want your business to remain sustainable, too.
Consumers value sustainability and will spend more with someone else to get it, according to Deloitte, who tells us not only that wealthier consumers are already more engaged with these issues, but also warn: “Ethics matter more to younger consumers. 18-34 year olds are most likely to choose brands for their ethical values….”
Those young consumers are tomorrow’s biggest shoppers and seek brands that articulate their values. It is in that context that sustainability is not a luxury item, but a business imperative.
All of these reasons and a few more explain why Apple’s green slide shouldn’t be ignored any more.
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