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The Sustainability of Apple Watches
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Data Stories...The Sustainability of Apple Watches

The Sustainability of Apple Watches

Ecology News
Technology
a smartphone
All of its innovative features are enticing, but is the new Apple Watch as sustainable as the company claims it is?
Ecology News
2023-09-15T00:00:00.000Z
en-us
a smartphone

The Apple watch is the most popular watch in the world – with its ability to link to other Apple OS devices and monitor and track fitness taking the globe by storm. Recently, Apple announced the new Series 9 Apple watch at the latest Apple Event – claiming that the new watch would be more innovative than ever before: with new workout metrics, more precise sleep tracking, and even sensors to track outdoor road activity and potential car crashes. 

According to Apple, the newest Apple Watch is made to be exceptionally powerful with their new Apple S9 chip – allowing Series 9 Apple Watches the capability for “machine learning tasks up to twice as fast” and 18-hour battery life. This is likely to appeal to customers who want to experience the features of the Apple Watch without needing to take it off as often to charge it. 

In addition to this, the new Apple Watch has made adjustments to accommodate itself in the real world – such as by automatically adjusting brightness and allowing users to use their fingers to answer phone calls, take pictures, and even snooze an alarm. This is all to be done separately from touching the screen on the Apple Watch itself, referring to the new gesture as, “double tap” – and is meant to make using the Apple Watch even more efficient and hands-free when the user is preoccupied with something else.

All of these innovative features are enticing, but is the new Apple Watch as sustainable as the company claims it is? 

Unfortunately, the fact that Apple has claimed the Series 9 Apple Watch to be its first ever carbon neutral product is far from a good start. This is because such a claim continues to perpetuate a deep misunderstanding of what carbon neutrality truly is. Even though Apple has made efforts to work towards sustainability, this statement is ultimately false – as no product or company can ever be carbon neutral.

Main takeaways from Apple Watches Analysis

Raw materials and Manufacturing

Raw materials

  • Apple has been transparent enough to share the emissions created due to the raw materials necessary to build the Apple Watch (see this doc on the official website).
  • The good news is that the new Apple Watch makes use of raw materials: such as recycled elements – but unfortunately, Apple is still unable to demonstrate a true circular economy. This is because the Series 9 Apple Watch is made with numerous, small metals (such as gold, tin, copper, and cobalt) that are difficult to disassemble and therefore recycle. Ultimately, Apple would need to redesign the way in which the Apple Watch is manufactured to make it easier to take apart at the end of its life-cycle for it to be deemed truly and entirely recyclable. 

Manufacturing

  • Apple has committed to helping their suppliers, especially the ones that have assisted in manufacturing the Apple Watch in attempts to use green electricity (RECs, guarantee of origin, etc). In this case, Apple is using a market-based electricity method – where Apple is calculating their emissions depending on the type of electricity their suppliers use. This is in opposition to the location-based method, where emissions will be calculated from the electricity use according to the average emission intensity of the power grid used by the manufacturing plant.
  • The following graphs depict how Apple has been “buying green electricity” to help their suppliers be viewed as more sustainable. In other words, buying green electricity for suppliers that otherwise wouldn’t have done so themselves is good – as it could present the opportunity to leverage the construction of new wind farms or solar panels. However, only relying on this tactic isn’t effective in the long run – as using green electricity doesn’t compensate for manufacturing products that are ultimately difficult to recycle.
  • As shown in the table on the previous page, Apple put a “0” under their scope 2 emissions, seeming to forget the emissions related to R&D (i.e., the electricity used in the building where engineers work)
  • Scope 3 emissions are only partially shared in the graphs shared by Apple, with many specifics having been conveniently “forgotten” – which is ironic given how imperative measuring and aiming to reduce scope 3 emissions are for any company seeking to become more sustainable. This is because scope 3 emissions refer to miscellaneous emissions which can be hard to identify and calculate. Apple could share an estimate of their total scope 3 emissions, even if they aren’t precise to the decimal point – seeing as the impact created on behalf of advertisements and design (R&D) can have an effect on Apple’s carbon footprint . Leaving out this essential information on their emissions demonstrates that Apple is not aiming for the level of transparency expected of companies working towards the global goal of carbon neutrality.
  • Even more so, it is odd to note that Apple’s supply emissions have not decreased immensely. According to Apple, global iPhone shipments are down 12% – meaning that Apple should have seen a correlation between reduced shipments and emissions. This brings into question how much effort their suppliers are putting into emission reduction schemes. 
  • According to Apple’s calculations, the Apple Watch is subject to 36.7 kgCO2e of baseline emissions – and after its emission reductions, the total product emissions equate to 8.1 kgCO2e.

Communication 

Recycling claims

  • Apple has gone through a great deal of effort to demonstrate that they “recycle” their products, however – this is hard to rationalize seeing as many Apple devices are difficult to dissemble and recycle piece by piece. 
  • That being said, Apple has introduced an offer for previous users of Apple Devices to bring in old devices in exchange for an Apple gift card or store credit. However, this approach remains selfish and suspicious – seeing as it will only encourage customers to return to Apple and continue to buy their difficult-to-recycle products. 
  • Apple could rectify by seeking to develop and design more modular products that can be repaired more easily – removing the need or incentive for consumers to buy entirely new Apple products. 

Environmental Claims

  • Apple has been vocal on their relationship with purchasing carbon credits to aid in the fight against climate change, such as depicted in this doc how they have purchased carbon credits for Verra, the Climate, Community & Biodiversity (CCB) Standard, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)”. 
  • However – this in itself is still controversial. Carbon credits refer to the tradable units that represent the removal of a specific quantity of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In Apple’s case, these credits are purchased in order to compensate for the environmental damage created by their products – such as the Series 9 Apple Watch. While this isn’t by any means bad for the environment, it doesn’t help Apple get to the root of the problem – their products are producing a carbon footprint that needs to be tackled at the root of the initial product’s design.
  • Apple has discussed their motivation in, “helping their suppliers to reach 100% green electricity” – where Apple is merely referring to the Apple Supplier Clean Energy Program. A list of Apple’s 300 suppliers, committed to using clean electricity, can be found via the link provided. Apple states that 100% of their suppliers are using clean electricity, but in reality – very few have chosen to disclose any data that proves this true. In fact, according to IPE – some of the data disclosed shows that renewable energy may only represent a limited part of a group's total electricity consumption and cannot be attributed to specific manufacturing plants.
  • When disclosing scope 3 emissions, Apple mentions “Generation of renewable electricity-Production” and “Generation of renewable electricity – Product use”. Ultimately, this is unclear, as Apple is explaining that they, “account for emissions necessary to generate clean electricity, specifically to manufacture and maintain renewable energy infrastructure, like wind and solar farms” – a murky phrase that doesn’t allow potential consumers to understand the full scope of Apple’s environmental impact in the midst of their transition to the use of clean energy. 
  • In addition to this, Apple saying, “Generation of renewable electricity – Product use” only equates to 4%. This is bizarre, seeing as Apple is presuming how much electricity will be consumed by the user – something Apple can not even begin to predict. Even if they are currently able to, there are no sources or explanations as to how Apple arrived at that number.
  • This yields statements such as,  “We have invested in clean energy projects to match 100 percent of our customer product use with clean electricity” to be incoherent. This means we can presume that Apple only invests a certain amount of money into clean energy projects in accordance with how often they think users are charging their devices. Using this methodology, Apple can easily “cheat” itself out of investing a responsible amount into clean energy projects.

Inconsistencies with Apple & Supplier Engagement

  • Apple’s suppliers do not manufacture Apple products exclusively, meaning that these suppliers are presumed to have their own individual clean electricity program. This would mean each supplier must calculate a ratio to account for electricity-related emissions. The term, “supplier manufacturing allocations” remains unclear.
  • In fact, according to IPE, who has collected information on Apple's supply chain emissions data, reveals that some of Apple’s suppliers are continuing to produce excess emissions – meaning that it is probable to think that the amount of clean electricity used by these suppliers is sparring. Otherwise, their emissions output would be overall decreasing instead of increasing.
  • In addition to this, Apple has made clear that they will not require their suppliers to disclose their carbon emissions with the public, “We may not ask suppliers to provide facility-level carbon emissions information this year.” This is an eyebrow raising approach seeing as encouraging suppliers to be more transparent is key for any company aiming to reduce their carbon emissions, whereas Apple is protecting their suppliers from needing to disclose their environmental impact. When asked about this, Apple answered, "Our long-term policy is not to disclose information about our suppliers” – and it is only after over a year of investigations on behalf of various environmental organizations that Apple has decided to communicate with these allegations directly.

A huge misunderstanding of carbon neutrality concept

Apple has focused the Apple Watch communication campaign on sustainability. This could have been a good idea, as Apple undertook many improvements in the newest Apple Watch design. Unfortunately, the common thread of this communication campaign turns out to be absolutely wrong, and reveals at best a misunderstanding of what carbon neutrality really is.

The truth is that carbon neutrality refers to an ideal balance that cannot apply to any product or company, because carbon neutrality is a situation. A target that humankind must meet on a global scale. Basically, this means that carbon neutrality is a collective goal that cannot be met individually. 

In short, carbon neutrality is when humankind will emit and absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

But does achieving global and collective carbon neutrality necessarily require a sum of individual neutralities at various sub-scales? This doesn’t seem like a relevant approach. It would be best to consider how these entities act in favor of collective carbon neutrality - rather than achieving "their own" neutrality.
Only one exception exists: states, whose transitions are considered ambitious and transformative enough at a collective level.

The reason why so many companies, like Apple, are confused with this term – is that they are asked to do the same: find a way to emit and absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide. 

Here are a few arguments to understand why companies cannot pretend to be carbon neutral (source ADEME). 

Scope Argument

To find a balance between emissions and sinks for companies, we should consider their direct emissions only. Indeed, aiming for a balance for both direct and indirect emissions would result in oversizing the need for sinks, because indirect emissions would be counted by several entities. However, limiting the reasoning to direct emissions would neglect a significant portion of companies' responsibility, since the majority of emissions often fall within their indirect scope ("scope 3").

Equity Argument

Some businesses already hold abundant sinks (such as the agricultural sector, agri-food, etc.) and will need to become net "negative" rather than just net zero to contribute to global carbon neutrality.

Efficiency Argument

Striving for an individual “net zero status” doesn't trigger the expected actions from economic players in the context of the climate emergency. Indeed, allowing economic actors to "offset" their emissions through the purchase of cheap carbon credits makes it economically irrational to implement more expensive transformative actions for their own decarbonization. Furthermore, claiming "carbon neutrality" insidiously implies that climate work is already done, especially by other players, and promotes unfortunate inertia among leaders and collaborators.

Arithmetic Argument

"Net zero" claim is an accounting trick, resulting from a subtraction between emissions and carbon offset. This zero hides the work a company does to genuinely reduce its emissions. It's impossible to distinguish a company that has reduced its emissions by 50% and compensates for the rest from a company that hasn't reduced at all and compensates for 100% of its emissions. Thus, this “accounting neutrality” does not reflect an economic player's maturity regarding climate action.


Semantic Argument

Climate science provides a definition of carbon neutrality that only applies on a planetary scale. It seems understandable to reserve this term for the only object for which it is scientifically defined.

Image Argument

From the consumer's perspective, the idea of a “carbon-neutral company” is fundamentally dubious. There is nothing less "neutral" for climate than a company, because it induces significant and multiple environmental impacts through its value chain. It's dubious that such an entity (and what it implies in terms of production, wealth creation, employment, social, and economic impacts) could ever claim to have no impact on climate. Moreover, it is important to highlight that a product claiming to be “carbon neutral” - because the emissions related to its creation are “compensated” - can be a polluting product (because of its raw materials, use of non-renewable resources, etc.). Unfortunately, this claim could mislead consumers, making them believe that “carbon neutral” and “eco-friendly” are the same thing.

Temporal Argument (for products and events)

Carbon neutrality is a long-term temporal horizon, which should crown a continuous process of emissions reduction and increasing carbon sinks. Such a process is made possible by the fact that these entities "endure" over time and can be associated with a logic of improvement. Conversely, occasional entities (events) or those inherently unable to establish a continuous improvement approach (products are manufactured once and for all and don't "change" during their use), the concept of neutrality seems devoid of interest. Worse, it's even misleading to associate the idea of "neutrality" with products, services, or events solely based on the compensation of their emissions, especially when they may inherently be incompatible with the Paris Agreement (examples: neutral oil, neutral gasoline, neutral LNG, neutral flights...).

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