Can Tech Giants be Truly Green? Tim Cook’s Apple is Out to Offer an Answer

Apple’s recent purchase of 36,000 acres of forest is just the latest in the company’s growing sustainability work that includes philanthropy, clean energy, toxics reduction, and now conservation. Can Tim Cook prove that a huge corporation going green is more than lip service? 

If you had told most environmentalists even five years ago that Apple would become an environmental leader, it would have been a hard sell. In 2011, Greenpeace rated the company the least green based on its data centers’ energy mix. The company regularly came under fire for lack of transparency about its carbon footprint and pollution in its supply chain. And Steve Jobs for years—at least publicly—was disengaged with philanthropy and sustainability. 

Related: iGive: Apple Is No Longer the Stingy Company It Used To Be

How times have changed, and quickly. Last week, Apple announced that it would purchase two large tracts of “working forest” to be handed over to the Conservation Fund for sustainable management and pulp production. The company stated that the paper produced by the forests is equivalent to about half of the non-recycled paper that Apple used in its packaging last year. Apple's goal is to hit 100 percent. But that's just one of the steps the company has taken: 

  • Lisa Jackson, former head of the EPA under Obama joined the company in 2013 as Apple’s vice president of environmental initiatives. 
  • The company’s U.S. facilities and data centers are all now powered by clean energy, and 87 percent of global operations are. Apple is now at the top of the Greenpeace ranking that it flunked in 2011.
  • The company is spending $848 million on a solar plant in California, and announced recently it would be investing in another solar project in China. 
  • The company has been ahead of others in phasing out certain toxic chemicals used in production.
  • Tim Cook has become a highly vocal environmental advocate, calling climate change the issue of his generation and saying the time for debate has passed.  

Cook has become a force in philanthropy and a public social activist as well. He said in a recent interview with Fortune that he would be giving all of his wealth away—that's close to $800 million worth of Apple stock. Under Cook, Apple has fired up new philanthropic endeavors, including donating to support employees' volunteer hours, and donation matching. And perhaps most well-received, he came out publicly as gay and slammed homophobic legislation appearing in states across the country. 

Related: Tim Cook’s New Stance on Climate Change 

The company under this CEO is an entirely different, and I would say better, animal than it was under Steve Jobs.

Jobs, although he did donate more than he’s often given credit for, had a laser-like focus on his company’s products as instruments of change. Everything else—activist stances, sustainability, philanthropy—were distractions from what he needed to accomplish with Apple. He was enormously successful on that front, but why couldn’t he do both?

There’s a school of environmentalism that believes capitalism itself can't do both, especially when it comes to stopping climate change. That, by nature, it gobbles up resources and externalizes environmental damage. While Apple has made strides, it definitely hasn't washed its hands of the massive environmental impact of personal electronics production. This is particularly a problem considering that most manufacturing is outsourced to companies in Asia, which are still overwhelmingly powered by coal. 

But can Cook prove it doesn’t have to be this way? After all, this isn’t a local food co-op we’re talking about. This is Apple, the corporation rated No. 1 in market capitalization in the world. If any company can change the supply chain, this one can.

And the company isn't doing what we find to be the worst of all corporate responsibility strategies: wreaking environmental havoc while simulataneously donating to nonprofits to fix the problem. It really seems to be improving its environmental footprint and pulling multiple levers to do so. Nothing was more encouraging than when a conservative group slammed the CEO for betraying shareholders with its green initiatives.

Cook will perhaps always be remembered for barking at the questioner: 

"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind," he said, "I don't consider the bloody ROI." He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader...

He didn't stop there, however, as he looked directly at the NCPPR representative and said, "If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock."

That sounds serious.

One more thing about Tim Cook's green activism: He's clearly a passionate environmentalist, and we now know he's preparing to give away his fortune away. But so far, he's yet to embark on any massive green philanthropy that we know of. My guess is that we can expect that to change, sooner rather than later.

Related: Tim Cook IP Profile