A cheeky Apple advertisement appeared in several newspapers on Tuesday. Above a vast array of solar panels, it read: “There are some ideas we want every company to copy.”
The ad ran not only during Apple’s latest bout of patent litigation against Samsung, which continues in a San Jose courtroom, but on Earth Day, an annual reminder of our environmental responsibilities.
Apple used Earth Day to launch a new video ad, ‘Better’, narrated by chief executive Tim Cook himself, and a new portion of its website dedicated to its green achievements. These include powering its data centres with 100 per cent renewable energy, as well as 120 of its retail stores.
But perhaps more remarkable is that Mr Cook let Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environmental initiatives, give an open and sometimes unscripted talk at Stanford University on Tuesday night.
Sightings of Apple executives in the wild are rare beyond product launches, a handful of carefully stage-managed press interviews and quarterly earnings calls.
Ms Jackson was feisty, funny and forthright at the Stephen H Schneider Memorial Lecture, given in honour of the pioneering climate scientist.
Raised in New Orleans and educated as an engineer, she spent almost all of her career at the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency, most recently as its head. She left last year and joined Apple soon after.
“I immediately went from being a regulator to a regulatee,” she told the Stanford students and professors.
“There really isn’t this choice between the environment and the economy,” she said. “We have to challenge the notion that every advance for the environment or sustainability must come at the expense of the economy.”
Like the EPA, where she had 17,000 staff, an attraction of Apple was its scale – despite having just 17 people reporting to her now.
“When Apple makes a change, it has the potential to change a lot,” she said. “It has the potential to be as impactful as a regulation.”
A central theme of her presentation was that as government shrinks, the private sector can and must define what it means to be a good environmental citizen, in excess of what is mandated by existing regulations.
“I think it’s really important to go beyond what’s required and start asking what’s possible, which is what Apple’s all about in many many ways,” she said.
“I think there’s also an opportunity here for companies, for the private sector to help move us from our national stasis on climate policy.”
Her top case studies at Apple are the renewables-powered server farms that power iTunes, FaceTime, the App Store and other cloud services. Ms Jackson argued that it’s not just about making customers feel good about their online activities (though it’s questionable how many have even thought about their impact).
It also creates a stable and reliable supply of energy, at similar prices to “brown” power.
“What we want to do is share what we’ve done so we can debunk the notion that renewable energy is not ready for prime time,” she said, referencing the newspaper ad. “We already know it is and it can be cost effective and it can be good business.”
Apple’s data centres have won it approval from the previously critical Greenpeace – but it is manufacturing that makes up more than two thirds of the company’s overall carbon footprint.
Ms Jackson devoted less of her talk to the supply chain, and barely even mentioned Apple’s recent efforts to prevent conflict minerals from getting into its devices. But she was keen to point out that Apple’s carbon footprint calculation is thorough, including emissions from mining materials for its products and the power they consume once in their customers’ ownership.
“If you don’t measure it and own it and understand it, you won’t be driven to do anything about it,” she said.
“We think the real frontier for resource efficiency is the idea of a circular economy,” she added, which involves designing compact, long-lasting products with recycling and reuse in mind.
That might be hard to square with a company under pressure from Wall Street to continue delivering growth, despite the huge number of iPhones it already sells every quarter – as Wednesday’s earnings report will test.
But the fact that Apple is letting one of its executives go out into the world and make such promises is a sharp change in communication strategy, if nothing else.
“We have a responsibility to be open and to communicate with our customers and the public at large about what we are doing,” Ms Jackson concluded. “We certainly haven’t given up our responsibility to get a financial return for our shareholders, but the opportunities, the possibilities are in the innovation.”
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