With the launch of Apple’s new environmental initiative, the world is once again buzzing with comments, critique and speculation on what the world’s biggest brand is doing. Apple’s bold move is an impetus for the private sector to move in the same direction. Renewable energy is ready to become mainstream, and those companies that fail to pick up on the trend will lose their competitive edge.
From the full-page ad in newspapers around the world, to the homepage placement of a powerful video narrated by Tim Cook himself, Apple is launching its first major manifesto in years, making the very public declaration that “environment” is a significant new string to the brand’s bow.
Apple has always had a razor-sharp eye for what people want, and has been a driving force of pop culture over the past several decades. Its decision to link its brand, along with its bedrock ideals of innovation and creativity, to the environment speaks volumes about what it thinks is important to its customers. If Apple perceives that people want it to incorporate robust environmental principles in its business models, than one thing is clear: industry laggards will not only continue to contribute to climate change and environmental degradation, but their brands, and ultimately their businesses, will decline as well.
Apple not only recognizes unequivocally that climate change is a real problem, but also that companies like it can help be a part of the solution by powering their operations with modern, renewable forms of energy. The company originally built its brand by appealing to “influencers” and “taste-makers” who identified with Apple’s core values and admired their design. With the iPhone, Apple reached a wider audience than ever, and its new commitment to do better for the planet sends a clear message that this is what consumers aspire to.
Far from hiding its environmental goals in the back of an investor report, Apple’s very public Earth Day announcement has already reached millions of people worldwide. Apple is now selling environmentalism to the mass market, underpinned by strong commitments to renewable energy, toxic-free production and recycling. Many companies practice greenwashing, making glitzy green ads about token projects, while doing little to clean up the environmental footprint of their core business. Apple has put its money where its mouth is: Greenpeace’s report, “Clicking Clean,” found that the company’s embrace of renewable energy is genuine, and is leading the technology sector. Apple is still far from perfect –it has issues that it must address throughout its supply chains for materials, energy, and labor, including in China – but by being so open about its sustainability goals, Apple is indicating a willingness to be held accountable for its impact.
Apple has historically been tight-lipped about its environmental record. In making its new commitments so publicly, the company enters a new relationship with its consumers and stakeholders, indicating a willingness to be held accountable for its impact on the planet. While only time will tell how far Apple is willing to go to do “better”, the company’s challenge to itself also throws down the gauntlet to others.
The key to Apple’s success as a brand has long been its uncanny ability not just to predict the future, but to invent it and make it available here and now. iPod allowed us to carry our entire music collection with us for the first time. iPhone made the internet truly portable. Just as Apple’s white headphones went from unusual, to ubiquitous, to copied by everyone else, Apple is doing the same for both renewable energy and the broader idea that major companies are responsible for “leaving the world better than we found it,” as Cook says in the company’s new video.
Apple is proving that a healthier planet, one powered entirely by renewable energy just like its own data centers, is no vision from a crystal ball: it’s here, it works, and it’s what the real innovators are embracing. As usual with Apple, others will surely follow. It is my hope that they will do so sooner, rather than later, for their brand’s sake, but also for our future on this planet.
Kumi Naidoo is the Executive Director of Greenpeace International.