Why Tim Cook’s green push goes back to Apple’s roots

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Less than a decade ago, Apple was singled out by Greenpeace as one of the least environmentally-friendly tech companies on the planet.

Apple has since turned over a new leaf, embracing environmentalism as something every bit as central to the company as the latest iPhone.

Just how important became evident a few months ago, when, during a routine earnings call, Cook spoke of his dream for Apple as a “force for good in the world beyond our products.” The recent global celebrations for Earth Day for the first time in nearly a decade mean that his dream is closer to becoming a reality.

So what changed exactly?

Environmental protesters in 2012 block coal trains meant to power Apple's Maiden, NC data facility.

Environmental protesters in 2012 block coal trains meant to power Apple’s Maiden, NC data facility.

“When I was at Apple from 1999 to 2005, sustainability was pretty much an afterthought,” says Abraham Farag, a former senior mechanical engineer of product design at Apple. Farag describes Apple’s approach to being green at the time as “lip service.”

Under Steve Jobs, Apple’s refusal to embrace sustainability came down to two principle factors: cost and design. For example, recycling plants wanted components which weighed over 25 grams to be marked with a special code so that they could be properly recycled. “But the marks were not pretty so Apple wouldn’t put them on,” Farag says. “Sustainability [organizations] want different materials to be attached in a method that was able to be separated later for recycling. No way we could alter the design for that consideration. Pure looks trumped any possible consideration for sustainability.”

Abraham Farag during his time at Apple.

Abraham Farag during his time at Apple.

Of the 16 mentions of the word “environment” that appear in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, all except one have to do with the environment (read: the mood and corporate ethos) inside technology companies. Jobs was a man who wanted to shape environments, not be shaped by the environment.

The same is true for the appearance of other words like “sustainability,” “green,” and other buzzwords that will likely appear time and again in the Tim Cook biography, when it is written. The only mention of the word “recycling” is in the context of an annoyance: a plane which flew overhead during Jobs’ famous Stanford commencement address, waving a banner which read “Recycle all e-waste” and threatening to distract  listeners.

Apple’s environmental tussles reached their nadir in 2005, when the company got into a spat with Greenpeace International. Greenpeace slammed Apple for its use of toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process, and also for its lack of a recycling program. Jobs stood up for Apple’s environmental efforts at first — particularly when compared to competitors — but soon agreed that changes needed to be made. From mid-2006, Apple began phasing out CRTs and replacing them with LCD monitors, which met the European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electronics, years before the EU deadline for compliance.

Apple additionally focused on lowering the power requirements of many of its products in general, which scored high Energy Star ratings, as well as gold ratings from the Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which attempts to measure products’ environmental impact over their lifespans — taking into account energy use, recyclability, and the manufacturing process. Products were also redesigned with recycling in mind — seen by choices like the decision to switch from plastic to aluminum for Macs.

Despite its "flower power" theme, the plastic used by early iMacs made them difficult to recycle.

Despite this computer’s “flower power” theme, the plastic used by early iMacs made them difficult to recycle.

While Jobs got the lion’s share of the credit, behind the scenes two of the driving forces behind the “greening” of Apple were reportedly Tim Cook and Jony Ive. As both began to get more power within the company, Apple’s focus on sustainability grew.

What was key about Cook and Ive being sustainability advocates was their placement within Apple. Since both had considerable operating autonomy, they were able to get things done that predecessors with similar ideas had never been able to. For instance, while Abraham Farag was employed at Apple he recalls the company hiring a former colleague he had worked with at IDEO. She was brought on with the job title of program manager for Environmental Technologies and Strategies Group within R&D; charged with tracking environmental attributes for all new hardware projects.

There was just one problem, however: she was the only one doing this at the time.

“Imagine with everything Apple was doing they [only] had one person looking at the environmental impacts,” Farag says. “[There’s simply] no way one person could have much impact without very strong top-down support, which she didn’t get. She certainly tried, but it was an impossible task.”

Apple has embraced alternative energy source like solar power and hydroelectric power for its data centers.

With Cook and Ive now the two most powerful people at Apple,  the focus on environmental factors has gained steam. In May 2013, Cook announced that Apple had hired the former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, to serve as its top environmental adviser.

“Apple has shown how innovation can drive real progress by removing toxics from its products, incorporating renewable energy in its data center plans, and continually raising the bar for energy efficiency in the electronics industry,” Jackson said around the time she joined. “I look forward to helping support and promote these efforts, as well as leading new ones in the future aimed at protecting the environment.”

New reports coming out of Apple have continued the stress the company’s breakthrough green products — from a Mac Pro which uses less than half the allowable energy limit, to a focus on the environment in Apple’s latest Supplier Responsibility Progress Report.

Cook has also sorted out the last of the major sticking points for Apple’s green credentials: its data centers, which saw Apple ranked dead last out of various tech companies in a 2011 Greenpeace report. Jump forward just a few years, and Apple has embraced alternative energy source like solar power and hydroelectric power for its data centers, as part of its pledge to use 100% renewable energy to power all of its facilities.

Similar sentiments are behind the decision for Apple’s $5.5 billion Cupertino “spaceship” headquarters to have 70% of its power provided on-site by photovoltaics and fuel cells, with the remaining power covered by sustainable “green sources” in California.

Sustainability is a key theme of Apple's forthcoming Apple 2 campus

Sustainability is a key theme of Apple’s forthcoming Apple 2 campus

“This is a Tim Cook initiative,” says former Apple CEO John Sculley, speaking with Cult of Mac about Apple’s drive toward promoting sustainability as one of its primary goals. While Sculley notes that Jobs was responsible for a great many groundbreaking innovations, he has it on good authority that Cook is the one who has driven Apple’s embrace of sustainability.

“This is a Tim Cook initiative,” says former Apple CEO John Sculley.

The company’s green direction may look like a marketing stunt. After all, this is hardly an area that Apple is coming to early.

But it is something that Tim Cook feels strongly about. A cool and collected CEO with none of Jobs’ reputation for tantrums, Cook has lost his temper very few times publically while at the helm of Apple. One of those occasions came in March this year, however, when he was pushed by the conservative think tank National Center for Public Policy Research to disclose the cost of Apple’s sustainability programs.

Claiming that ethical decisions sometimes trump financial ones, Cook snapped that he didn’t “consider the bloody ROI” (return-on-investment) when it came to promoting sustainability. “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock,” he said.

Cook has often sounded too much like a person impersonating Steve Jobs during his stint as CEO: saying the kinds of things Steve might say, but without Jobs’ charisma and ability to distort reality with his “gee whiz” boy inventor proclamations.

When Cook narrated Apple’s recent Earth Day commercial, though, it came across as Cook speaking about a subject he felt passionate about, that you couldn’t imagine coming out of Jobs’ mouth.

By embracing the eco-friendly roots of the Whole Earth Catalog, Tim Cook has found a way to stand out as CEO.

By embracing the eco-friendly roots of the Whole Earth Catalog, Tim Cook has found a way to stand out as CEO.

At the same time, the ad — and the overall vision for Apple — works because it makes total sense given the company’s ethos. Apple might only have embraced environmentalism lately, but its identity owes a great deal to organizations like the Whole Earth Catalog — the hippie-tech magazine Jobs mentioned during his Stanford commencement address. The phrase “Stay hungry, stay foolish” came from that magazine’s founder, Stewart Brand, who stayed in touch with Jobs his entire life.

Brand’s 1960s vision was for a combining of personal technology with the kind of back-to-nature thinking prevalent in counterculture circles. Jobs took many of the Whole Earth Catalog’s ideas, but instead of using them to refer to the literal ecosystem, he used them as metaphors for the kind of tech ecosystem Apple runs on today — where sales in the App Store, drive iPhone sales, which drive iPad sales, and so on.

Tim Cook’s vision for Apple as a green company brings Apple back in line with that ideology — minus the metaphor.

At a time when new earning reports coming out of Apple are spun as negatives once again by certain analysts (despite another record quarter), and the world is still awaiting the next breakthrough Apple innovation, Cook may have given it to us with Apple’s rethought approach to sustainability.

His belief in Apple as an environmental “force for good” speaks more of a man evolving what Apple stands for as a company — rather than continuing to rule over the kind of “haunted empire” Yukari Iwatani Kane described Apple as in her recent book.

It might not be an iWatch, but perhaps this will ultimately prove to be Tim Cook’s lasting legacy at Apple.

And, hey, it’s never bad when Apple gets to point out how it genuinely “thinks different” to competitors like Samsung.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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