Apple Computer and the Environment

Written by Zac Vineyard in Business

How Green Is Apple?

An environmental policy that started for Apple, in 1991, as a removal of lead from batteries in devices "in advance of the 1996 European battery directive," has gone on to include the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in Apple manufacturing, removal of PVC from packaging, Energy Star compliance on computers and monitors, take-back recycling/reuse programs, investments in clean energy sources (wind) to power facilities, the removal of arsenic and mercury from LCD glass, and much more ("Environmental Progress", 2014). Two of the most noticeable highlights from Apple's progress in adopting better environmental practices are that "all products are at least twice as energy efficient as the Energy Star specification, and Mac mini is up to six times more energy efficient" and "Apple is the only company in the industry that publishes the environmental footprint of each of its products" ("Environmental Progress", 2014). These two achievements alone really make Apple stand out as a company genuinely concerned with how the manufacturing and use of their products impact the environment. And compared to other computer types, it is quite astonishing to see that the Mac Mini can run on just 10 watts of electricity, which is "less power than a single energy-efficient CFL light bulb" ("Environmental Progress", 2014). In the face of this progress, however, I think there is growing concern among people who use products developed in China about the overall impact of those products on the environment, especially during the manufacturing process. Similarly, there are other concerns about new types of materials used in manufacturing small electronics: rare-earth metals. There have been claims about a number of shortages in rare-earth metals and concerns expressed about how their mining and long-term use affect the health of people. Because of these global problems, seeing how progressive Apple's environmental policy really is, and whether we'll see electronics manufacturers lead others into better practices, is a challenge.

How dirty is the iPhone?

In the fourth quarter of 2013, Apple sold 33.4 million iPhones (Velazco, 2013). During that time they sold three models of the iPhone (the 5s, 5c, and 4s) with an average C02E value of 61.67Kg. This means that manufacturing plants in China produced the equivalent of about two billion kilograms of C02 for phones sold in that quarter. For reference, that's about the same amount of C02 that would be released in the burning of 230 million gallons of gasoline (at 8.8 Kg of C02 per gallon of fuel), or about 6.5 gallons of gasoline per phone (Environmental Protection Agency, p. 1). Keep in mind, that's for one quarter of iPhone sales. The shear number of iPhones sold since 2008 (about 420 million) gives you an approximation on the C02E that's been produced because of the iPhone. The World Health Organization says that "air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone in developed and developing countries alike," that causes diseases including heart disease and lung cancer ("Air quality and health", 2011). Measured in particulate matter (PM), the WHO's guidelines for air pollution indicate that "reducing particulate matter (PM10) pollution from 70 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre...can cut air quality related deaths by around 15%" ("Air quality and health", 2011). Air pollution in China, however, is a recurring problem spurred on by electronics manufacturing, with some Chinese cities receiving the worst air quality ratings in the world. The pollution problem has gotten so large that "filthy emissions from China's export industries are carried across the Pacific Ocean and contribute to air pollution in the Western United States" (Wong, 2014).

Environmental Issues in Electronics Manufacturing

While it is easy to focus on C02E, many of the other ethical environmental issues in electronics manufacturing come from two other sources: the mining of rare-earth metals (many of which are used in electronics) and the creation of products that use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or brominated flame retardants (BFRs). The use of BFRs is viewed as unethical because they are "highly resistant to degradation in the environment and are able to bioaccumulate," meaning they don't degrade well and can be absorbed into human and animal bodies ("Why BFRs and PVC should be phased out of electronic devices", 2010). Similarly, PVC manufacturing "involves the use of hazardous raw materials, including the basic building block of the plastic, vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), which is explosive, highly toxic and carcinogenic" ("Why BFRs and PVC should be phased out of electronic devices", 2010). Apple has made movements to remove BFRs and PVC from their products (some of which are totally free of the substances), down even to their smallest components:

For decades, the electronics industry commonly used toxic substances such as arsenic, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), mercury, phthalates, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Although most parts of the world still allow the use of these substances, Apple has sought better alternatives. Take AC power cords. For several years, Apple worked closely with material suppliers to develop PVC-free and phthalate-free custom compounds that met high standards for durability, safety, and environmental impact. We then worked with regulators around the world to validate and certify PVC-free power cords, even in regions where standards did not exist. ("The Story Behind Apple's Environmental Footprint", 2014)

The 15-Inch MacBook Pro is, for example, entirely BFP and PVC free. According to Greenpace's environmental guidelines, however, this hasn't been the case with other computers you can own. "HP continues to lag behind other PC brands...having postponed its 2007 commitment to phase out PVC and BFRs from its computer products (excluding its server and printer lines) from 2009 to 2011" (15-Inch MacBook Pro: Environmental Report, 2014, p. 1 & "Why BFRs and PVC should be phased out of electronic devices," 2010). It is clear, however, that removing BFRs and PVC from products leads to better health and environmental implications, including lower risk of health problems connected to BFPs and lower overall levels of PVC in landfills.

The mining of rare-earth metals is another ethical issue connected to electronics manufacturing. The iPhone's screen, for example, is coated in indium tin oxide. A byproduct of zinc mining, it has the "rare ability to be able to conduct an electrical current while also being optically transparent like glass" (Hartley, 2010). From Apple's perspective, it is unfortunate that the "latest warnings are that supplies [of indium] may well run out in the next decade" (Hartley, 2010). Overall, the demand for rare-earth metals has been growing in-line with consumer demand for more products that use them, including many of the high-tech gadgets we use today, like smartphones and televisions. The ethical issues concerning rare-earth metal mining center over China's ability to both produce 95 percent of rare-earth metals and the fact that they have "been willing to do dirty, toxic and often radioactive work that the rest of the world has long shunned" (Bradsher, 2010). Chinese state media has reported, for example, that "a 2006 study by local authorities showed levels of radioactive thorium in soil near [a waste lake in Baotou] were 36 times higher than other areas of Baotou" (Greene, 2012). They also reported that "exposure to high levels of thorium can cause lung and pancreatic cancer" (Greene, 2012). "Farmers living near the 10-square-kilometre expanse in northern China say they have lost teeth and their hair has turned white" (Jackson, 2011).

apple green environment icons

Is "going green" making a difference?

One of the primary criticisms against companies like Apple for adopting environmentally friendly policies is that they do it not for the environment, but instead as a marketing tactic to gain market share for their products. A study by Martin Freedman and A. J. Stagliano in Ethics, equity, and regulation, for example, showed that, when compared to similar companies with no public recognition for sustainable development, fifty-two Fortune 500 companies with U.S. operations "cited in at least one of three major international reputational listings as being high achievers for sustainable development" were not any better than "those that have no such public recognition" (Freedman & Stagliano, 2010). Against expectation, Apple was named one of the matched companies with no public recognition of sustainable development in this study. These company comparisons were built on a metric called a TRI, which stands for a Toxics Release Inventory. Apple was among ten other companies that scored a zero on that inventory in 2006, indicating, with regard to sustainable development, a very good performance. Still, reports like these, which remain focused on U.S. operations, do very little to explain the impact companies like Apple have, within the context of globalism, on the global environment. Clearly this data didn't include information about pollution created overseas. Other critics of Apple's "green" practices have also questioned their performance in environmental sustainability. In an article titled "How Green is Apple?" from The Wall Street Journal, Ben Charny quotes a senior executive from Dell, Inc. in this statement:

Competitors and environmentalists...say Apple's green efforts have less to do with cleaning up its products and manufacturing and more to do with marketing. In a recent blog posting, a senior executive at Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc. said he was "surprised" by Apple's claims of environmental-friendliness. Environmental groups, like Greenpeace, point to surveys ranking Apple below other computer makers, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard Co. in green practices. (Charny, 2008)

By 2009, though, Apple had surpassed both HP and Dell in Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics (Guide to Greener Electronics, 2009, p. 1). Still, with these better rankings, Apple's status as a "green company," by Greenpeace's standards, is moderate at best.


It is clear that many ethical environmental issues exist in electronics manufacturing, the consequences of which are primarily connected to destruction of ecological systems and health problems in people who breathe air pollution, live near radioactive mines, and suffer the consequences of exposure to chemical waste. When you think about the position China is in, it is hard to see, though, whether we've globally justified the creation and use of hazardous materials in electronics under the guise of cultural relativism—"the concept that morality varies from one culture to another"—, whether they devalue their citizens enough to ignore public health, or whether we're considering the moral weight of our materialistic demands at all (Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell, 2013, p. 278). If we can move away from the utilitarian view that economic gains produced through the suffering of few (or the suffering of many through the small, cumulative effects of air pollution), we could see that any harm toward other humans should be, as much as possible, minimized and avoided. Apple has seen part of the vision in making safer products, but will need greater innovation to rescue people from the hazards of radioactive mines and air pollution. If you believe, as David Gill does, that "we are, in effect, murderers whenever we can do good and do not, whenever we can prevent harm and do not, and whenever we contribute in any way, no matter how small or indirect, to death in the world" then it is clear that this world, and the way humans use it, has many, many ways to improve (Gill, 2004, p. 185). Clearly, we have the case that much deeper commitment is needed from companies like Apple to much more aggressive environmental policies.


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