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Don't Fall For Apple's Greenwashing
Carbon-neutral, my ass.
A few days ago, Apple did yet another one of its swanky launch events. The main focus of this one was the upcoming iPhone 15 and its EU-compliant USB-C port (RIP lightning port). But hidden among the pomp and excitement was something truly worrying: Apple’s next Apple Watch. The product itself is absolutely fine, if a bit expensive. But the problem has nothing to do with the watch itself; instead, it lies in Apple’s carbon-neutral claims about the watch. You see, Tim Cook and the gang have engaged in some genuinely moronic greenwashing. Let me explain.
Let’s start off by acknowledging that Apple’s sustainability efforts have actually been okay. Their products have a longer operational life than most of their competitors. I use a 4-year-old iPhone, which runs great and uses the latest operating system; I couldn’t say the same if I used an Android. The same can be said for their iPads, computers and watches. This long life means Apple contributes less to e-waste, has a small manufacturing carbon footprint, and a smaller mining footprint (at least in theory). Apple also has a decent recycling scheme, although it isn’t as widespread and available as it should be.
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But the big feather in Apple’s sustainability cap is their carbon emissions and profit. Their annual emissions peaked in 2015 when they emitted 38.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That year, Apple made a whopping 53.39 billion dollars in profit! 7 years later (2022), they emitted 46.35% less emissions at 20.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, yet their annual profits have soared to a staggering 99.8 billion dollars! This means Apple has successfully and dramatically decoupled growth from emissions, a critical step towards sustainability.
These are all steps in the right direction. But Apple is still miles away from true sustainability.
So, when Apple announced they were creating carbon-neutral products, my curiosity peaked. How have they made such a giant leap forward? Well, they hadn’t.
In the announcement, they stated that specific case and band combinations of the Apple Watch Series 9, Ultra 2 and SE will be entirely carbon-neutral and labelled and advertised as such. They went on to say they had done this by reducing emissions from materials, electricity, and transportation in the production of the watches. One of the main ways they have done this is to pressurise their supply chain to use renewable energy — though I have yet to find out if this is genuine renewable energy or renewable energy credits. Any remaining pollution will be offset through nature-based projects like restoring forests and increasing their carbon capacity. Furthermore, Apple will also offset the electricity the consumer will use to charge the device by buying carbon credits that fund renewable energy infrastructure.
All sounds good, right? Well, it turns out the carbon offsetting Apple is doing here is more than a little dubious.
Let’s start with the odd one: renewable energy infrastructure carbon credits. On the surface, these seem like an innocuous and obvious way to reduce and offset emissions, but they aren’t. They don’t pull carbon out of the atmosphere; they merely reduce the carbon that will enter the atmosphere in the future, and not by all that much. This is why this offsetting approach can’t be used to reach net-zero. Furthermore, renewable energy isn’t a charitable cause that needs funding like this. It is a vastly profitable industry that fossil fuel energy companies need to transition into by spending their hundreds of billions of dollars of expansion money on, rather than investing in yet more oil fields. So, in a roundabout way, renewable energy infrastructure carbon credits are allowing fossil fuel companies to continue expanding their planet-wrecking ways rather than transitioning as they should. All of this is why experts say this type of carbon credit is utter junk and means nothing.
Now let’s look at the other offsetting method, Natural carbon credits. These pay to restore and expand natural carbon-rich environments like rainforests or mangroves to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. In theory, they work and do good, but they are incredibly dubious for carbon-neutral claims. You see, calculating how much carbon is stored is incredibly difficult and susceptible to cherry-picking, meaning the carbon credits linked to these practices are not verifiable or reliable. What’s more, these ecosystems don’t have the capacity to store enough carbon to truly help us reach net-zero. These natural carbon sinks are also vulnerable to collapse and carbon release from things like wildfires and even earthquakes, so they aren’t a safe form of carbon storage either.
So, claiming a product or service is carbon-neutral due to natural-derived carbon credits is incredibly inaccurate and misleading.
For example, a study looked into 40 large corporations that claimed to have carbon-neutral services or products thanks to natural carbon credits to see what their actual carbon footprint was. Unsurprisingly, they found that they had only reduced their emissions by 36%, and their carbon credits’ value (the total carbon captured) was wildly inaccurate.
This is why bodies like the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI), which ensures organisations who join them report carbon correctly, have stated that Carbon credits like this cannot be used for offsetting emissions instead of reducing emissions within corporate value chains or for making ‘carbon-neutral’ claims. Basically, Offsetting like this is not a substitute for decarbonisation.
The law is even catching up with this scientific viewpoint. In the UK, it will soon be illegal to claim and advertise a product as carbon-neutral through offsets unless the company can prove and verify its credibility. This means that in the UK, Apple can’t sell the Apple Watch as carbon-neutral, as you can’t verify natural carbon credits.
But there are carbon offsetting methods you can verify, such as Climeworks Direct Air Capture (DAC) systems. Third parties have verified them, so when you pay to offset one tonne of carbon dioxide, that is how much is pulled from the air. So why doesn’t Apple just use this type of offsetting?
Well, DAC technology is far more expensive than natural carbon credits, pricing it out of even Apple’s reach. What’s more, the annual capacity of DAC technology is tiny, at only 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. So even if Apple scooped up every single DAC-derived carbon credit out there (most of which isn’t verified like Climeworks), then they can only offset 0.05% of their emissions. In other words, there probably aren’t enough DAC carbon credits in the world for Apple to make the Apple Watch verifiably carbon-neutral.
It’s a damn shame that a company like Apple feels the need to sully its already decent (but not good enough) sustainability record with such transparent greenwashing. There are so many better ways to show your efforts towards sustainability than undermining your own credibility like this. For example, if they joined the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative, the massive efforts they have put into reducing the actual emissions from products like the Apple Watch can be better highlighted and marketed with integrity and honesty. Surely, that is a better way of going forward, rather than trying to dupe consumers?
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