Apple has won plaudits for its sustainability initiatives, but its environmental reporting is selective and short on measurable targets

Greenpeace says Apple is the “greenest tech company” in the world for reducing toxic elements in its products, using 100% renewable energy at data centres and stores, and pursuing renewables investments. Greenpeace is happy, but does the company’s reporting support these laurels?

The pace of Apple announcements of green initiatives this year is fast and furious. At the end of April, the company told the world it had bought 36,000 acres of forested land in the US for conservation forestry, and would work with WWF to help sustainably manage one million additional acres in China. These purchases are part of Apple’s goal to have a net zero impact on the world’s supply of “sustainable” virgin fibre.

Apple’s US data centres run on 100% renewable power, and the company said in February it was constructing two new data centres (in Denmark and Iceland) also to be powered by 100% renewables. Solar power is high on Apple’s horizon: it says it will spend $2bn on a solar-powered command centre in Arizona, and in China it is working on a 40MW solar farm in Hongyuan, among other projects.

In May, Greenpeace compared Apple with a dozen other tech leaders including Google and Amazon, and found Apple far ahead of its peers when it comes to green initiatives.

Yet there’s a big but. As a read-through of Apple Environmental Progress Report 2015 makes clear, Apple is taking many actions but its reporting and approach are idiosyncratic. Apple is not using GRI-based reporting or any other reporting standard, thus it can cherry-pick accomplishments. (In its 2013 environmental report it “considered” GRI 3.1 guidelines.)

Take the company’s virgin fibre goal as one example: in the 2015 report there is no accounting for how much virgin paper fibre the company uses in its extensive product packaging; no details on how much the new land purchases cover that use; or any details or timelines showing how the net zero goal will be accomplished.

In regard to greenhouse gas emissions, Apple is reporting the carbon footprint not just of its operations but also of its extensive supply chain (all manufacturing is in China) and of lifecycle product usage. This is good, but Apple does not have an actual GHG reduction goal, though chief executive Tim Cook gained lots of press attention for proclaiming in 2014: “We don’t want to debate climate change. We want to stop it.”
Keeping it simple

Apple likes to keep things user friendly, and in its 2015 report it boils its ambitions down to three goals: reduce its impact on climate change by using renewable energy sources and driving energy efficiency in its products; conserve precious resources; and pioneer the use of greener materials in products and processes. These are nice goals, but compared with sustainability best practice in other mega-corporations, they are vague.

Apple’s environmental report does reveal something important: Apple itself knows that its biggest impact, both in carbon emissions and in the amount of energy used, is from the third-party manufacturing, plus the transporting, use and recycling of the more than 300m products it sells annually (more than 169m iPhones in 2014 alone).

Tackling that type of impact is hard. In 2013 total GHG emissions were 33.8m tonnes; in 2014 they were 34.2m tonnes. Apple says the carbon intensity of its products is dropping, but not fast enough to keep up with consumers’ seemingly unending desire for iPods, iPads and iPhones, which unfortunately have built-in obsolescence.

Apple’s economic success story is stunning: in the late 1990s many were predicting the company’s demise, but in February 2015 its valuation reached $700bn. Environmentally, Apple seems to be taking on some big, impressive actions, but entirely on its own terms.

Addressing social concerns, Apple released a 2015 Supplier Responsibility report in February this year, saying it has doubled its number of conflict-free smelters; told its suppliers no workers can be charged recruitment fees; and expanded a clean water programme that helped suppliers save 500m gallons of freshwater.

Apple has always behaved amazingly innovatively, but the question remains if it can bring that amazing innovation to bear on comprehensive sustainability actions.


Follows GRI? No.
Assurance? Environmental data verified by Bureau Veritas North America (BVNA) and by Fraunhofer IZM for Scope 3 carbon emissions.
Materiality analysis? No.
Goals? Yes.
Targets? No.
Seeks feedback? No.
Key strength: Ambitious ideas.
Chief weakness: Does not follow reporting standards, and covers only environmental aspects; supplier responsibility reporting is separate.
Pleasant surprise: All Apple’s data centres run on 100% renewable energy.

April Streeter is an associate with One Stone


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