Apple’s commitment to going green reflects Tim Cook’s long-term agenda

The five-year project, which will be funded by the tech company, aims to help China reduce its environmental footprint through producing paper products from “responsibly managed forests within its own borders”, according to WWF.

It will involve planting trees as well as implementing environmental standards that use less land and water along with producing less pollution, to make paper. Apple currently operates 19 corporate stores and 22 retail stores in China, employing 8,000 people.

Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environmental initiatives and former US environmental protection agency chief, has spearheaded the push to power company facilities with renewable energy, and reduce impact from its supply chain.

“Forests, like energy, can be renewable sources,” Jackson explained. “We believe we can run on naturally renewable resources and ensure that we protect – and create – as much sustainable working forest as needed to produce the virgin paper in our product packaging.”

That in itself is a solid commitment from Apple – an acknowledgement of its status as a powerhouse company across the world, and the duties it has because of that status. Its development as a business raises questions over how the growth will be maintained at a sustainable rate, as well as what consequences this growth will have for the world in general. For Jackson, the latest announcement marked Apple’s “commitment to leave the world better than we found it”.

The tech giant though hasn’t stopped there in its environmental efforts. It also announced data centres in Europe, solar farms in California and hydro-electric turbines in Oregon as examples of its increasing environmental focus. The world’s largest company by market capitalisation – its value stands at over $700bn – has quite explicitly laid out that it’s serious about a wider renewable energy initiative, with further plans to invest in two 40MW solar farms in China too.

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, has advised that this will be a gradual process, but is nonetheless a step in the right direction. “This won’t happen overnight – in fact it will take years – but it’s important work that has to happen,” he said. Cook added: “Apple’s in a unique position to take the initiative towards this ambitious goal.”

This series of moves may yet encourage others to follow suit, as Cook no doubt knows. As the spotlight is unwaveringly on the tech giant, this can be both a positive and a negative. Cook himself, following in the footsteps of the inimitable Steve Jobs, has faced unerring scrutiny as to whether he is the right man to lead Apple forward. One might wonder how much more of an upward trajectory the company can sustain, but it’s interesting that one area Cook has already distinguished himself from Jobs in, is that of social justice and philanthropy.

Where Jobs was rigorously private and cautious about using his status to back particular political causes, Cook wrote for the Washington Post in March of this year, condemning anti-LGBT legislation as being “very dangerous”. Equally, he has been outspoken on the matter of user privacy and warned governments off too much intrusion regarding individuals’ privacy at a cybersecurity summit in February 2015.

As Apple’s status seems only to grow – its prominence across the world, along with the eye-watering numbers it posts at each quarterly results – so too does the onus on it to show the company can be a force for good. It may seem then, that in this respect, Cook is certainly a good man to have at the helm of such efforts.

Apple has given more than $40m to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund since Cook became CEO, and the business leader has previously spoken of his intentions to give away most of his $800m fortune to charity – in an interview with Fortune. Referring to his ten year-old nephew, Cook said: “When I look at him, and when I think of leaving a world that’s not as good as when I entered it, there’s no bigger sin than that”.

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The sentiment echoes Jackson’s recent statement about Apple’s new project with WWF, and reflects a clear environmental agenda alongside Cook’s philanthropic one.

Lo Sze Ping, chief executive of WWF in China, said Apple’s announcements were significant for several reasons. “Apple’s support for this project and its environmental leadership show that protecting forests is not just good for society but important for business,” he said.

“Our hope is this will catalyse a new model of corporate leadership in promoting sustainable forest management and using paper resources more efficiently around the world,” he added.

Apple’s goal, as stated on its site, is to “achieve a net-zero impact on the world’s supply of sustainable virgin fibre and power all its operations worldwide on 100 per cent renewable energy”. There isn’t, as yet, a publicly projected time for this aim to be achieved, but Apple already has the rather impressive stat that 87 per cent of its global operations run on renewable energy.

As the world’s biggest company, it may be less financially constrained in attempting new initiatives, but this doesn’t negate that by actively pursuing these projects, and assessing what works and what doesn’t, Apple could open the door to many other businesses following suit.

Image: Mike Deerkoski

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