Earlier this week, when Apple announced that it was building a solar-powered data center in Mesa, Arizona, I immediately thought of their phones. To be sure, there’s much to admire in Apple’s commitment to reducing its internal carbon footprint. But that admiration needs to be tempered by an equally relevant set of facts: the carbon emissions associated with each generation of the iPhone are actually growing.
The trend was brought to my attention in a blog post by the Restart Project, a London-based collective that promotes repair and maintenance of old products. As they point out, Apple laudably discloses carbon emissions for each of its products via publicly available environmental reports. And according to those reports, the carbon emissions associated with an iPhone have been growing with each new model, from 70kg for the 4s, to 75kg for 5s, to 95kg for the iPhone 6 (Apple doesn’t break out respective carbon emission rates for the 6 and the 6 Plus) that was selling – according to Apple – 34,000 units per hour during its last reported quarter. That’s a whopping 35% increase in per iPhone carbon emissions over three phone generations.
To its credit, Apple’s reported carbon emissions data include emissions generated by customer use, transportation of the product from manufacturer to sale, and recycling – in addition to those associated with production. Yet iPhone production – largely based in China, which recently pledged to reduce carbon emissions – remains the biggest and fastest growing contributor to iPhone related emissions. According to Apple’s data, production accounted for 69% of 4s emissions, 83% of 5s emissions, and 85% of 6 emissions.
If these numbers seem at odds with the sustainable image that Apple projects to its customers, that’s because they are. A brief perusal of Apple’s website (including the ‘environmental responsibility’ section) brings up multiple instances where Apple emphasizes its commitment to a low-Carbon present and future. “We believe climate change is real. And that it’s a real problem,” the company notes at www.apple.com/environment. “And while we have a long way to go, our efforts are working – even though we’re manufacturing and shipping more products, our carbon emissions per product are dropping.”
That may, in fact, be true for Apple products across its line. But where it counts – on its critical, best-selling iPhones – it’s clearly not, and that something that the company and its investors need to start caring more about. Apple, after all, isn’t just a mobile phone brand. It’s a high-end lifestyle product that markets itself as somehow more sustainable than its competitors. Because its competitors don’t disclose as well as Apple, there’s no way of confirming the claim. But what we do know is that each successive generation of iPhone is having a greater impact on climate. Apple deserves credit for disclosing that information. But if it really wants to do right by its customers and the climate it needs to do more than worry about the carbon emissions at its data centers; it needs to start worrying about the carbon emissions associated with the products it exports to its customers’ pockets.