How can Apple be sustainable?

August 5, 2022

I get this question every so often so it’s probably worth an explanation here.

First of all, nowhere in the book or in my talks do I say that Apple is perfect or that their approach to sustainability is the only approach. They certainly have room for improvement. But, knowing what I’ve learned about the manufacturing processes, the material impacts, the market demands, and both the needs and desires of customers, I know of no company that makes such sophisticated products and services (as opposed to things like soap or bags) that is as successful nor has made such great strides across financial, environmental, and social sustainability issues and impacts.

There are only four references to Apple products in the book: an extended example about dematerialization (Chapter 5), one comment about iTunes being an example of transmaterialization (Chapter 8), one negative comment about the lack of component maintenance of iPods (Chapter 10), and a comment about Apple’s approach to innovation in Chapter 16. So, that’s only 1 long example and 3 short comments.

Most people who have questions about Apple point to the long example (in Chapter 5). Regarding this, in my opinion, there is no better example in the entire industry of a dematerialization strategy than what Apple has done. Not only have they applied it to all of their products (not just some token ones) but they’ve applied it to accessories, instructions, and packaging as well. This is THE cornerstone of their sustainability strategy and it focuses on the highest impact segment of their products’ impacts (manufacturing). It is different than HP’s strategy (which focuses on take-back programs) but is no less valid. In addition, they’ve made it the core of their product visual language–an interesting feat that no one else has achieved with sustainability.

To discount Apple’s work as merely “hip” and “trendy” is, in my opinion, very short-sighted. They are able to engineer things (both on the hardware and software sides) that no one else can achieve–certainly not at the quality and price levels they hit. They have incredible engineers that have specifically focused on sustainability and carefully chosen materials, manufacturing processes, and final forms and components that are way ahead of their competitors. Some may not like their products or their methods but to deny what they’ve accomplished and what they’re capable of is not accurate. They are hardly perfect, but for examples of large corporations making complex products that are not only sustainable but innovative and serve customers so well, they excel.

Often, people accuse Apple of “planned obsolescence.” I’ve never seen any evidence that they intentionally shorten the life of their products to force customers to replace them, nor do they redesign their products to make their old products look old and undesirable. Both of these tactics is what the term “planned obsolescence” refers to. Apple certainly works really hard to hit certain price-points and that’s got to have an effect on the quality of the components they put into their products–especially for the lower price products.

However, there’s a big difference between trying to be competitive in a very tough market (consumer electronics) and intentionally designing their products to fail. I often encounter people with an example to share of a friend who’s hard drive failed after only a year or some other sign of low-quality. But, for every example, I have heard just as many examples of Apple products lasting six and eight years–and longer. At some point, of course, products become obsolete because the rest of the industry no longer supports them. This might be due to software, hardware, or services. As a company, Apple can only go back so far to support it’s old products. All software and hardware companies do this and I don’t think that Apple’s support is any less than other companies. Compare them with Adobe, Dell, HP, Microsoft, etc. for example. Just like with automobiles and appliances, often, other companies will step in and support these products–up until it’s not viable for even them to do so. For technology companies, the phenomenon is usually worse since the technology itself is advancing so rapidly (just compare the last 15 years of the Internet).

One of the common opinions I encounter regarding iPods (and computers) is that Apple continuously comes-out with new models that make past ones obsolete. I haven’t seen this happen as well. Every time that Apple ships a new model, it doesn’t make their past models unusable. Instead, many people suddenly view the products they currently own in a poorer light and WANT the latest version but, again, that’s not planned obsolescence. Like all companies, Apple should always be developing new, innovative solutions. That’s what it needs to do to thrive. However, these don’t make the old ones obsolete. They work just as well as the day before the new one comes out. That people don’t like their current products as much isn’t Apple’s (or any other company’s fault). It’s a fact of human nature–especially in a consumerist society. I can’t really knock Apple on this. They refresh their product lines once a year–sometimes twice but the interim refreshes are usually just performance and memory enhancements or price drops. In fact, many of their products aren’t refreshed for up to 3 years (such as their displays). That’s a long time in the consumer electronics world.

In addition, for mobile products, like laptops, iPods, and smart phones, the tolerances needed to reduce the size and energy requirements of these products (as opposed to desktop or immobile products that don’t need to fit in your hand) are much more severe. This requires trade-offs in design and manufacturing that reduce the upgradability. For example, adding an upgradable processor in a slot to a motherboard often adds enough height to the processor that it no longer fits in the same space between the keyboard and motherboard–and other components. Or, perhaps the cooling affect requires a much bigger fan and more airspace. The entire laptop or phone would need to get thicker. This only gets worse with every component that needs to be upgradable. And, the bigger issue is that, along with these newer, faster, more energy efficient components, with computers and other electronic products, most of the other components–and the motherboard itself–also needs replacing to take advantage of the greater performance or energy efficiency. These upgrades also often cost more in parts and labor than a new device would. Given how few people are even interested in this, unlike for homes and cars and large appliances, it’s just not viable for most businesses to support this. Instead, Apple has chosen to focus their attention elsewhere, including reducing the materials used in manufacturing and making these products as easy as possible to recycle. That’s not a bad sustainability approach.

In the just over 8 years that Apple has sold iPods, for example, it has created 20 versions. However, these span four different product lines that serve different needs. That’s, on average, only 5 years per product line and that includes upgrades that only add more RAM or faster processors–in other words, no changes to the physical capabilities of the product. Should Apple have not come-out with the Shuffle, for folks who want a cheap iPod and don’t need the screen or video? Should Apple not have come-out with the iPod Touch for the people (many of them children) who don’t need the phone component but still want access to Google Maps, their calendar, the Internet, email, games, IM, etc. while they’re away from home or work?

The iPod shuffle, for example, has changed dramatically in its three revisions, from a small plastic device to a much smaller aluminum one, to the latest, almost impossibly small, aluminum version. Along the way, each device has gotten smaller, uses less material, is more recyclable, increased the capabilities (and, therefore, value to the customer), AND has gotten less expensive. That’s three progressively more sustainable, better devices over 5 years. I don’t know of another company that has achieved that. Even the iPod Nano, over 6 years, has only had 5 revisions (including the iPod Mini) and steadily gained features, providing more value, and done so more sustainably, shedding materials and parts in the process. Should Apple not have kept their products competitive? Should they keep products on the market that aren’t as energy efficient or should they keep producing products that aren’t as sustainably made simply because it’s easier?

Often, Apple leads the industry in shedding chemicals–way ahead of the regulations requiring them to do so. Of course, this doesn’t reflect their entire corporate history, but this has been a focus for the company since, at least, 2004 and it’s really paid-off.

If people have other examples of organizations that are doing this, I would love to know about them and highlight them in a revision of the book or, at least, on this blog.