Each year, when Apple takes to the vast stage in its even more vast headquarters to announce its new iPhone, executives stand in front of a series of cards. Some show the new cameras, and some show the new photos those cameras can take; others show the processes that helped forge the phone, or how it will refuse to die even in the face of being dropped or doused in water.
One is less spectacular, yet it appears at every event. It features a checklist of specs, many of which are high-tech sounding abbreviations – “BVR, PVC, mercury” – but these are not features that Apple has added to the phone, but harmful materials that Apple has left out.
The card is Apple’s response to a question that is asked, more and more, of every product: what harm does it do to the world. That response is intended to tout the work Apple has done to make its products less harmful, but also to acknowledge that plenty more is left to do.
“This is so important to us,” said marketing boss Phil Schiller as he brought the card up at the iPhone event. “It’s why we bring it up every time. We want to keep pushing the boundaries of this.”
In the wake of that introduction, Apple’s Lisa Jackson – the company’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency – is in London speaking proudly about the environmental advances in the new iPhone that sit alongside its improved processors and cameras. But she is also talking clearly about the work left to do, and the desire to speed up those improvements.
“I think what’s cool is we’re making steady progress,” Jackson tells The Independent. “So much so that it just gets to be part of the story without being the lead. It’s not ‘look what we did’ – it’s, ‘we told you we’re going to keep working on this, and every new product has some story’.”
This time around, in the new iPhone, the story Jackson says she is is most proud of is the materials inside the Taptic Engine, the little vibrating component that lets the phone give you a tiny nudge. To do so, it relies on magnets made of rare earth materials – and now those materials will be recycled, helping boost the environmental credentials of the new phone.
That same story is a reminder that there is plenty of work left to do, however. “It’s about a quarter of all the rare earths you find in a typical iPhone, so it’s not all done.”
But it answers one of the substantial questions that plagued Apple when they announced that they would pursue a strategy of “make but not take” and encourage the phones to be part of a circular economy that let old parts come into new iPhones. The mining of rare earth materials is a particularly harmful part of the creation of smartphones, but they are also particularly difficult to extract, critics said.
“I never quite understood that, because the reason they’re rare is not because they’re not found – it’s because they’re at very low concentration – so you have to put a lot of energy and time into getting them out if you mine them, so it would seem like putting energy and time into getting them out of devices would be smart too.”
There are other parts of the new phone she is proud of: material from the iPhone-destroying machine Daisy are showing up in new machines, letting the aluminium from old devices be used in new ones, and the cobalt from old batteries is successfully recycled back into new ones.
But there are still materials and processes left to improve. Apple keeps making phones out of new materials, using new processes – and each of those poses a new challenge to those trying to keep that process as sustainable and environmentally sound as possible.
“We’re making progress. Sometimes you wish you could speed it all up,” she says. “We have 14 materials we’ve highlighted, and we don’t have equal progress on them.
“But some of that’s technology. Some of that’s scale. Some of that’s crazy things, like shipping regulations and how you can move materials around. So we have to work on all of those at the same time.”
Apple is trying to fix the technical issues with solutions similar to those used in its products, such as Daisy, which is a very precise and powerful iPhone disassembly machine that uses technological advances to pull apart phones rather than put them together.
The other issues are less high tech and just as difficult to solve: working with regulations about moving materials around, for instance, which requires detailed legal work to ensure that Apple is not accidentally breaking rules and laws as it attempts to create a circular economy. There are more traditional logistics questions, too, like ensuring that waste is not moved around so much that it generates more CO2 than the recycling actually saves.
“It’s tons of fun if you’re into this kind of thing,” she says. “But tons of work.”
These are not problems that will one day be cracked and go away, says Jackson. As Apple grows, so do the environmental challenges; just as Apple’s phones are probably not going to stop getting faster, so the questions about sustainability are never going to go away.
“To be honest, I think it’s going to go on forever – and I’ll tell you why,” she says. “It’s like when we got to 100 per cent renewable energy.
“In 2017, Tim and I said we’re now at 100 per cent around the world, but to stay at 100 per cent is constant work. Because we’re constantly building new facilities, adding teams, adding stores, adding data centres – and all of those have to get to 100 per cent renewable pretty quickly.”
Apple is going to keep creating new products, some of which might rely on new materials that are not immediately quite so sustainable. “To me, we are always going to try and go with the innovations, but we never want to hold back Apple innovations. We sort of, by definition, lag behind the innovations.
“If Apple is working on some brand new material, we’re going to have to figure out how to recycle that,” she says. “But we also work very closely to say: as you’re speccing a material, is there a way to spec recycled material?”
To try and ensure that question is asked as much as possible, one of the approaches that Jackson says she has pursued is to keep her team small – to try and infuse the aims of her team into the entire design process, rather than to parachute an environmental evangelist into the room and have them frustrate other designers. (Apple takes the same approach with privacy, trying to seed its principles into all of its staff rather than dropping in devoted watchdogs who could frustrate the process.)
“We didn’t grab a bunch of product designers or product engineers and bring them all into the environment team. First off, it’s just not the way Apple works: the collaborative nature of design means if you’re not sitting with the designers, maybe there’s a problem.
“We kept everyone where they were, and started to build a virtual team of people around the company who, in addition to everything else they do, would have a sensitivity and understanding of our goals around climate change and materials. Over time, that group has gotten bigger and further up the chain – we regularly now have discussions with designers very early in the process.”
Jackson is very clear that this doesn’t mean that the entirety of Apple, and its design process, is on board with such thinking. And those discussions can be difficult.
“It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to sometimes make hard choices, because you’re looking at performance, or a feature that might be really transformative. But we try as much as possible to avoid problems before they become a real challenge.”
Once again, Jackson is clear that there is plenty of work left to do and plenty of criticisms left to make.
“I’m not going to tell you everyone at Apple is thinking about it all the time,” she says. “But we have enough people who think it’s really important to them to work for a company, and make a product, that they believe is being made in a way that’s super sensitive to the planet.”
With time that has filtered up to the very top of the company, she says, and the people who are presumably designing iPhones many years in the future.
She credits support from Tim Cook, and from hardware boss Dan Riccio, with helping instil those values more and more across the company. Those working on the products from the very outset, like Jony Ive – Apple’s famous designer, who helped create its most famous products and is in the process of leaving the company – as well as design team leader Evans Hankey “are very sensitive to the fact that our products, as iconic and amazing as they are, also are really concerned that they be seen as great for the planet”.
“I think it helps a lot that the folks who run those groups at the high level are also really committed to it, and asking the tough questions,” she says.
Once again, Jackson is clear that Apple is not all the way to its goal, if it ever will be, and that there is plenty of work left to do. Apple's commitment to sustainable products might be clear but it is not necessarily fully realised, says Jackson, describing trips to colleagues at Apple to ask them about environmental questions.
“Every once in a while I’ll go into one of their offices and say, ‘ah, what’s going on?’ And they’ll say, ‘OK OK OK, I didn’t know, I didn’t know’. It’s a big organisation, but we’re getting there.”
Apple’s AirPods have come in for particular criticism: eventually, their battery stops working properly, and the small size and glue construction means it is not possible to replace them. At that point, they turn into a useless lump of plastic and battery.
In response to that problem, Apple offers the ability to swap old AirPods for new ones, charging $39 per stick for what is billed as a battery replacement but really means getting hold of a new one. The earphones themselves will then be shipped off to a devoted facility, where they will be stripped apart and mined for new materials.
The company also recently announced what it calls its Independent Repair Program, which allows shops to more easily fix broken Apple products and thereby, hopefully, prolong their life. That programme was launched “because people are concerned”, she says,
Despite Apple’s responses to those concerns, the criticism surely stuck in part because hardware companies have become such clear examples of consumption: assemblages of metal and plastic, all updated once a year and therefore just waiting to be thrown away. Jackson is open about the fact that the company could have done more to stress the work it is doing to counteract that view.
“We hadn’t in the past made it clear that this was part of who we are,” she says. “That’s on us; I think we’re doing better at that.”
She points to efforts it has made in afforestation, material recovery – or more spectacular responses like the fact the first premiere of a movie on the upcoming Apple TV+ service was The Elephant Queen, about animal habitats in Kenya.
“I think you’re always going to have folks who stand on the side say, ‘but you haven’t done this’,” Jackson says. “And I usually just say, ‘yet’.”
If Apple keeps working to ensure that it’s products are more and more sustainable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every other company will do the same, especially those who are not under the same sustained pressure that means that being green is a vital part of marketing and profits, as well as ethical principles. Other, cheaper companies without the same brand recognition could undercut more sustainable companies simply by flouting those commitments, and refusing to invest in sustainable production methods.
There could then be a danger that just like good design and fast performance, principles like sustainability and privacy become luxury goods, only available to those who can afford pricier products. Jackson disputes the idea that the iPhones are luxury products – “I think they’re high quality” – but is also clear that she believes regulation is the way out of that issue.
“The role of government is to make that not be OK. If there are goals that we say as a society we want, like clean air, clean water, addressing climate change, being really efficient with materials […] there’s a role for enforcement and for holding people accountable.”
That is a good argument as long as the politicians are on board. But that is far from guaranteed: the election of a climate change denier to be president of the US is surely an indication that, and the way attitudes can change in an instant.
“Well, the leadership changes,” she says. “The scientists, and the folks who do the technical work – those who have remained – I think are generally of high integrity.
“It’s political science that can sometimes be the problem, not science.”
Still, it is the politicians that set the agenda. And inspiring though the work of environmental activists may be, there is still the danger that those politicians refuse to listen.
But Jackson says the arguments are getting easier to make.
“I think one of the advantages we have in this moment is that if you swept everything else aside, clean energy is actually cheaper,” she says. “All of a sudden, we have an advantage that as an environmentalist we’re not used to having: the thing we think is great is also cheaper. What public policy will have to do is fine a way to bring that through.”
That could take a variety of forms, she says, such as carbon taxes. But it will be important to stress during that process that “we’re not asking for the more expensive alternative”, and that “we don’t revert to our old way of thinking which is that I’m asking you to put on some kind of control, and control costs money. I’m actually asking to help transition to something that’s better all around”.
That simple, economic argument is cutting through, she says, and Apple’s leadership is also being pushed by those who work for the company. It is not simply good economic sense to be environmentally friendly, she suggests, but a change that is demanded by the young and engaged workers of Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
Jackson says she saw some of that same youthful energy on show at the UN’s Climate Week, from where she’s just returned, and where Greta Thunberg delivered a blistering speech that attacked world leaders for their failure to attack.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said.
“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”
Jackson is “glad and happy” to see herself as being part of that same movement.
“What’s amazing about that is it reminds you of the ‘fierce urgency of now’,” Jackson says, quoting Martin Luther King. “The feeling that actually in all their anger and frustration is this belief that we’ve got to do this – but we can do this.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies