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Why Apple was bad for the environment (and why that's changing)

David Price | June 5, 2013
From self-centred hippyism to corporate responsibility: it's been a long journey for Apple

Why doesn't Apple have a better environmental record? For a company built by a group of long-haired Californian hippies, it's taken Apple a while to come to terms with its responsibilities to the Earth.

One of the many talking points at Apple boss Tim Cook's interview last week was the addition of an environmental policymaker to the firm's executive team. Lisa Jackson, formerly the administrator in charge of the US Environmental Protection Agency, will report directly to Cook and oversee Apple's eco-related strategies.

It's the latest in a series of moves that have seen Apple, once environmental campaign groups' favourite tech bogeyman, transform its eco credentials. (Indeed, Greenpeace has praised the appointment: "Jackson can make Apple the top environmental leader in the tech sector by helping the company use its influence to push electric utilities and governments to provide the clean energy that both Apple and America need right now," said Greenpeace senior IT analyst Gary Cook, who called Apple's new green tsar "a proven advocate".)

Concerns remain, but from a distinctly non-green past Apple has been working steadily to improve its reputation. With the appointment of Jackson, the company finally seems to be living up to the hippy ideals of founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. For years that hasn't been the case.

Apple's problems with the green lobby
In the most recent Guide To Greener Electronics, Greenpeace ranks Apple as 6th out of the 16 companies rated; a drop from its fourth-place finish at the end of 2011, but a distinct improvement from April 2011, when it finished last. That wasn't a one-off; Apple scored just 2.7 out of 10 in the first such report, back in 2006. [Full report as a pdf.]

Greenpeace's biggest issue with Apple two years ago was its reliance on coal to power its servers, along with its high (and increasing) estimated electricity consumption. As the Guardian explained at the time: "The report estimated dependence on coal for Apple's data centres at 54.5%, followed by Facebook at 53.2%, IBM at 51.6%, HP at 49.4%, and Twitter at 42.5%."

Other problems that Greenpeace has had with Apple in the past have included toxic components within the iPhone and other products, "withholding its full list of regulated substances" and poor policies relating to product take-back and recycling.

Apple continues to face criticisms over its environmental record; in February it came under fire after one of its suppliers in China polluted a river so badly that it turned milk-white, while in the same month Friends of the Earth accused it (along with Samsung) of "trashing tropical forests and coral reefs in Indonesia" due to the use of tin in the iPhone and iPad. (Apple is a victim of its success in some ways, of course. It's such a high-profile target that all the headlines for both stories were about Apple, even though other tech companies were as or more culpable.)


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