Apple’s Climate PR Is Not Actually Complete B.S.
Even if it makes you want to scream.
It wasn’t the titanium iPhone 15 casing, the USB-C charging port, or the ever-baffling Vision Pro updates that got top billing at Apple’s 2023 launch event on Tuesday — it was carbon neutrality.
The company’s annual new product showcase still included all the anticipated announcements, including two new Apple watches, the iPhone 15, and updated AirPods Pro. But Apple also used this year’s event to highlight the progress it has made towards hitting its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Unfortunately, it often managed to do so in the most confusing and cringey ways possible.
One particularly embarrassing early skit involved “Mother Nature” (in a cameo by Octavia Spencer) stopping by the Apple HQ to check in on the progress of the net-zero promise (think: Mother Nature staring soberly out at the horizon and Tim Cook being called Henry David Thoreau). Further loftily worded claims about Apple’s first-ever “carbon-neutral products” — the Series 9 Apple Watches — were couched in caveats about how “high-quality carbon credits” will be used to “address the small amount of remaining emissions.”
2030 Status | Mother Nature | Applewww.youtube.com
Overpromises (especially ones featuring Mother Nature played by an Academy Award-winning actress) matter: Most Americans already distrust corporate pledges around climate change, a Heatmap poll conducted earlier this year found. That's probably because corporations have a habit of making strong but vague vows about reducing carbon emissions and then not following through.
Americans might be growing attuned to a few giveaways that corporate spin is afoot. For instance, buying carbon credits without actually cutting emissions can be used to claim progress that wasn't actually earned. An investigation earlier this year even found that 90% of the carbon offsets by Verra, one of Apple’s partners, are “worthless.” Additionally, unit-focused carbon reductions, like those behind the Series 9, might make you feel good when you’re in the checkout line looking at the leafy label on the box, but don’t ultimately reflect the enormous work that goes into shifting the larger company’s footprint.
There can also be a lot of noise among corporate climate promises because drawing attention to small deeds can create the impression that real progress is being made when it isn’t. And Apple’s sustainability announcements sure felt noisy. Apple announced that it is completely eliminating the use of emissions-intensive leather (though the Hermes bands aren’t going anywhere). It said its iPhone screens will be “more repairable,” but then stopped short of actually making the anticipated right-to-repair announcement. And while Apple didn’t exactly volunteer to switch its charging ports to USB-C, it didn’t bother to address the inevitable e-waste that such a switch will create, either.
But here’s the thing: It appears Apple is starting to do the hard work. It is not completely relying on carbon credits to hit its ambitious goals. Its carbon-neutral watch is not masking total inaction elsewhere. And its list of emissions cuts is starting to add up to something real — in fact, its latest sustainability report says it has already reduced its gross emissions by over 45% since 2015. Why Tim Cook didn’t lead with this on Tuesday is beyond me.
Other initiatives that were actually pretty cool didn't get enough attention. Apple said it is prioritizing lower-emission shipping, like ocean and rail freight — a claim it says its methodology shows will emit “95 percent fewer emissions than by air,” a staggering number if true. It also highlighted its use of recycled materials but lingered too long on the ugly leather watchband replacements and too little on what was actually noteworthy: that the iPhone 15 uses 100% recycled cobalt in the battery; 100% recycled rare earth elements in the magnets; 100% recycled copper foil in the main logic board; and 100% recycled aluminum in the internal structural frame. (The mining and carbon-intensive processes like smelting aluminum required for iPhone manufacturing have long been targets of Apple’s sustainability critics).
Some of the most interesting moves by Apple were actually on the software side — and weren’t even featured in the streamed event. Take the introduction of a new tool called the “Grid Forecast,” which uses data from Watttime to predict when there’s cleaner energy available on a user’s grid, helping them to make informed usage or charging decisions. The tool appears to be the evolution of the “clean charging” feature that was introduced in iOS 16 and received considerable pushback (“iPhone users claim Apple is trying to TRICK them into upgrading by quietly slowing charging,” roared The Daily Mail at the time). Apple is also adding real-time EV charging station availability to its Maps app, which, if you haven’t heard, is good now.
Another neat new feature that I’ve already been enjoying while using the iOS 17 beta has been the addition of historic temperature data to the weather app, so you can see how much hotter it is out than average. It’s one thing to know that extreme heat events are becoming more common with climate change; it’s another to see day after day that it’s been “+19 above average.”
It’s absolutely true that Apple highlighted its carbon-neutral progress at length in part to help you feel less guilty about purchasing an expensive new gadget when the one you already have works perfectly fine. But it’s also worth applauding the company for taking some meaningful steps in the right direction that could add up in the long term.
You’re always right to be wary of when corporate climate promises sound too good to be true, but despite the cringe-worthy videos and eye-roll-inducing claims, Apple hasn't wholly underdelivered.
Editor's note: A previous edition of this article misidentified the actor in the Apple skit. It has been corrected. We regret the error.