CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) has been typically understood as a side activity of a company happening usually in a form of donations to NGOs or societal and environmental causes. Pretty often CSR is confused with philanthropy, which it is certainly not. As many employees and consumers are gradually building awareness about societal and environmental consequences surrounding business activities, it is more accurate to talk about Corporate Environmental Responsibility that is understood as a core business strategy, not a mere add-on to enhance brand reputation.
Why “E” should replace “S”?
If we think what the term “environment” embrace, it will be all: land, natural resources, people and culture (including technologies) that each and every company’s survival is dependent upon. Would we have companies if we would not have the environment? No. Would we have environment if we would not have companies? Yes. This is precisely why corporate environmental responsibility should have one of the highest priorities when business strategies, product development or supply chain are being designed and delivered. Companies literally dependent on the well-being of the (natural) environment.
UN Food and Agriculture Organization CER Strategy 2017-2020, along with their CER Policy is a good benchmark for any company that wants to effectively minimise their ecological footprint. Authors of the Strategy highlight that “in order to manage something, one must be able to measure and monitor it”. FAO has been measuring its GHG emissions since 2008. Image source: www.fao.org
As anthropogenic climate change is jeopardizing human rights at a scale we have not seen before in the history of our species (mass migrations, forced resettlement, water & food scarcity) businesses need to take immediate action on the negative impact they have on the environment with a scope and intensivity mirroring the seriousness of the issue.
OK, is the Corporate Environmental Responsibility actually a thing to the biggest polluters?
According to Allianz, the top greenhouse gases (GHG) sources are: energy plants, including mining operations (generating electricity and heat by burning fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil), residential buildings), industrial housing, agriculture & land use, road transportation, and commercial buildings. Apart from industrial housing, agriculture & land use, one of the industries that partake in generating GHG in all other sources is electronics industry.
We would not be able to use our smartphones if around 50 (or more!) elements from periodic table were not mined from the Earth we are still need to live in. We would not be able to receive messages, check emails or call via WhatsApp, if there were no data servers (still largely running on energy generated through burning of fossil fuels). Last, but not least, we would not be able to cherish those new Samsungs or iPhones every 18 months or so, if they were not transported to Germany, US, Poland or Canada by sea, sky or land transportation companies from manufacturing sites in China, Japan, South Korea or India . All of that contributes to GHG emissions.
One of the boldest example of company that is trying to lower their carbon footprint, and be as ethical and as environmentally-responsible as possible in electronics industry, is probably Fairphone (check my article about them). Their goal was first and foremost to change the electronics industry from the inside (rather than generate “x” K of revenue in the first year) and set a path of possibilities for clean and ethical production of smartphones: from mining to assembly, and distribution. They were able to establish a market for their products, attract investors, and sell 135 000 phones as of the end of 2018. This happened because their business activity mirrors the values and ethics many modern consumers adhere, or aspire to.
When I was doing my research, for the article about Fairphone, one of the reports I was sourcing my data from was the “Guide to Greener Electronics” by Greenpeace. That was the moment when I found out that 2 out of 3 electronic brands I am using daily, falls under the worst categories with “D” and “F” marks. Third one, Apple, was ranked as the second most “green” electronics brand of 2017, right after Fairphone. It’s sad to say, that there is currently no electronic brand that would get the highest possible rating “A”. Well, in order to understand how corporate environmental responsibility can be put in practice, I needed to find out why is that so!
Sadly, there is no electronics brand that would be marked “A” in the Guide to Greener Electronics Report. Source: www.greenpeace.org
Apple is publishing their environmental responsibility reports since 2009. Well, first reports were basically few pages-long leaflets covering as little as water & energy use, recycling rates or clean energy initiatives… inside their facilities in US. So “designed by Apple in California” part of their business was slightly touched, but “assembled in China”, not really. In their first environmental responsibility reports there was no data on GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions regarding mining, manufacturing, assembly and transportation of their products. I believe it was not like that because they wanted to hide this data, but rather because they had not measure it before.
OK, so what the second most popular global smartphone manufacturer do to be more environmentally responsible?
For Apple, the breakthrough happened in 2014 (report covering fiscal year 2013). Their environment responsibility report not only was longer (29 pages!), but phrase “climate change” appeared inside the document for the first time ever with a full chapter addressing this issue from Apple’s standpoint. That happened exactly when they have partnered with Ellen MacArthur Foundation within the Circular Economy 100 Program. CE100 is a “pre-competitive innovation programme established to enable organisations to develop new opportunities and realise their circular economy ambitions faster”. CE100 members (corporates, scientific bodies, governments) rather than competing with each other, share the knowledge and focus on a cross-company and cross-sector collaboration.
So what exactly Apple do to minimise its impact on the environment and mitigate climate change? Image source: Apple Environmental Responsibility Report 2018
Let’s investigate what Apple do to minimise their GHG emissions, secure finite resources their business is dependent upon and maximise recycling rates of their products.
1. Switching to renewable energy sources
In their latest report, Apple has announced that in 2018 they have managed to power 100% of their corporate facilities (offices, data centers, retail stores) with energy made from renewable sources. Starting from Apple campus in Cupertino covered with solar arrays, all of their data centers in California and Oregon are now running on clean energy. The Report shows not always Apple is able to buy green energy directly from local suppliers, that’s why… they build their own farms in US, China and India. First solar farm was created in North Carolina in 2011. In 2015 in Singapore (retail store, corporate campus), Apple put solar PV panels on more than 800 rooftops to deliver solar power to their facilities.
Image source: Apple Environmental Responsibility Report 2018
2. Investing in recycling advancements
Electronic waste (e-waste) is not only rapidly growing waste type, but it’s probably the most dangerous one as well. Aside from billion-dollar recycling companies, there are many semi legal or illegal recycling “centers” spread across African and Asian shores often “employ” men, women and children to disassembly, melt and separate different fractions electronics are made of. For more on the topic check the book “Junkyard Planet” by Adam Minter, among many others.
Going back to Apple. With their goal for closed-loop supply chain, they have been experimenting with their recycling robots since 2016. The younger sister of Liam, Daisy is said to be able to disassembly up to 200 iPhone devices per hour, removing and sorting components that traditional recyclers are not able to properly sort and recycle (each and every component needs different technologies for being recycled back into chemically clean material).
Video source: YouTube
It is Apple’s step towards closed-loop supply chain with an impressive goal they have set in 2017. Eventually, they want to stop mining Earth for materials and instead, recycle all of their devices. The initiative that is gradually helping in achieving that goal is Apple GiveBack trade-in program. Customers can collect gift card or credit for purchase of new devices by either sending in or bringing devices to retail stores, checking how much they are worth on dedicated website beforehand. The success of the program depends largely on the customers. To reach 100% target of recycling, Apple would have to collect all the devices they have produced in a given period of time.
Through more efficient recycling technologies and other innovations, we hope that one day we can stop mining the earth altogether. (Apple)
3. Providing environment-friendly transportation and corporate communication
Business meetings, commuting, conferences. All that requires consumption of fossil fuels. As long as you don’t switch to bicycles and electric cars. Apple is improving their GHG emissions rate in this sector by giving their employees an opportunity to use corporate coaches or bikes at their campuses in US and China.
Alternatively, they also support individual investments in electric cars, as well as working from home policy. At the new Apple Park in Cupertino one is able to use one of 700 electric vehicle charging points, or one of 2000 campus bicycles, as we learn from the Report. Switching from face-to-face business meetings around the world to remote conferences would be a great advancement, too (cutting on fossil fuels’ carbon footprint for flights).
And what they fail to achieve to be more environmentally responsible?
Aside from all the great improvements Apple has made in last few years, there is clearly one part of their business that’s left behind. Manufacturing. As their data show, manufacturing is now being responsible for 77% of all their carbon emissions. Of course tackling corporate facilities and employee transportation first in reducing overall GHG emission rates was reaching for a low hanging fruit. However, it is the materials mining, melting, assembly and product transportation that altogether make Apple (and other electronic manufacturers) unsustainable company.
Image source: Apple Environmental Responsibility Report 2018
I would love to see all of their commitments happening as fast as turning into renewable energy for corporate facilities. Based on Greenpeace Report, Apple is actually the only company in the industry that has committed to 100% renewable power for its supply chain. Indeed, inside Apple Report we will learn that their aim is to generate third of the energy demand (4 gigawatts) inside their supply chain from renewable sources by 2020.
As of April 2018, 23 of more than 900 Apple’s partners from supply chain has committed to 100% renewable energy for Apple production (Arkema, Finisar or Taiyo Ink Mfg. Co. among others). You might wanna say: “it’s not enough!”, right? But Apple’s moves are definitely better than Huawei being the only electronics brand reporting nothing about its supply chain greenhouse gas emissions. I guess.
Notwithstandingly, the biggest positive impact on the environment Apple could probably make, is to stop mining materials from Earth and start sourcing them from devices that are already on the market. Therefore, I keep my fingers crossed for the development of Daisy and Apple’s disassembly & recycling program. One Daisy however is probably not enough. Apple will have to allocate Daisy in every location where they manufacture and sell their phones to secure the recycling-based supply of all the minerals needed to manufacture their devices.