The greening of Apple

Photograph by Greenpeace

Just in time for Earth Day, Apple has released a glossy video and an Environmental Responsibility Report, its second.

The video (see below) hits all the right notes, and will burnish Apple’s image — endorsed now by Greenpeace — as a green company. “We think about power, and how to power that power,” says the narrator, former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, now Apple’s VP for environmental issues, “because our ecosystem is part of a larger one.”

The 36-page report is a tougher slog. Because in addition to hitting the right notes, it has to dance around the fact that Apple’s carbon footprint — 34.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emitted, 4.5 million gallons of water withdrawn — is getting bigger, not smaller.

“It takes an enormous amount of energy to design, assemble, and ship hundreds of millions of products all over the world,” the report acknowledges high up. It does not mention that Apple’s long term success rides on its ability to sell, year after year, even more hundreds of millions of products.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 12.30.23 PMThe good news is that Apple’s carbon efficiency — the ratio of carbon emissions to revenue generated — is improving (see chart). It’s on the strength of that improvement — and the promise to do more — that Apple won over Greenpeace.

The bad news is that there’s a limit to what Apple can do about the bulk of the remaining emissions.

“Every one of our data centers is powered entirely by clean sources such as solar, wind, biogas fuel cells, micro-hydro power, and geothermal energy,” Apple boasts. But data centers account for only a small fraction — a couple of toes at most — of the company’s total carbon footprint. The largest part — 72% by Apple’s own measure — is generated by manufacturing facilities on the other side of the world.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 11.27.36 AMNote the ratio of vague promises to hard facts in the paragraph about China:

We’re also helping our suppliers in China pave the way for renewable energy. Our 40-megawatt solar project near Chengdu, designed to power our corporate offices and retail stores, is setting a precedent for large-scale renewable energy in China. By showing that green energy is a viable option in China, we hope to set a clear path for the companies there that manufacture our products.

“We may not own our suppliers’ facilities,” the report concludes, “but we do own their carbon footprint.”


Below: Better Starts Here, narrated by Lisa Jackson.

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple (AAPL) coverage at or subscribe via his RSS feed.

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