5 Noteworthy Green Moments in Steve Jobs' Time as Apple CEO


photo: Ben Stanfield/CC BY-SA

Steve Jobs stepping down as CEO understandably has everyone buzzing, talking about the impact that Jobs and Apple has had on modern society. Indeed it would be hard to overstate the impact that Jobs has had on creating what we expect our computers and devices to do, how they look, and how we interact with them.

So let's do our part and take a look at some of the genuine green strides Apple has made in the past few years:

image: City of Cupertino

An Off-Grid Corporate Headquarters


Back in June Jobs pitched the virtues of Apple's planned new corporate HQ in Cupertino to the city council. At the time Lloyd wrote that in addition to being "really elegant and beautiful" even if "isolated behind a wall of parking garages", there's a lot of interesting green aspects to it:
It'll reduce the amount of asphalt on the property by 90%, increase the number of trees by 60% and the amount of landscape by 350%, and all of this while reducing the actual building footprint by 30%. It's also going to be off-grid, generating it's own power and using the grid as a backup, but that electricity will be produced with natural gas, according to what Steve said in the presentation.

The lack of renewable energy at the site does knock the green cred down a bit, but all told it's a remarkable effort at reducing eco-impact--even if being isolated from the surrounding community.


Leaving Chamber of Commerce Over Climate Change


It may not seem significant compared to making its products more eco-friendly, but Apple really needs to be commended for taking a stand and leaving the climate change-denying Chamber of Commerce.

Back in 2009, just prior to the COP15 climate talks, Apple was one of the first of a number of high profile companies, including several large energy companies, which decided that the Chamber did not represent their corporate values.

At the time Apple wrote:


Apple is committed to protecting the environment and the communities in which we operate around the world. We strongly object to the Chamber's recent comments opposing the EPA's effort to limit greenhouse gases. As a company, we are working hard to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions by relying on renewable energy at our facilities and designing more energy-efficient products for our customers. We have undertaken this unilaterally and without government mandate, because we believe it is the right thing to do.

Needless to say, the Chamber wasn't too happy. Since then, the Chamber has continued its efforts to stymie the EPA doing anything to regulate greenhouse gases, while Apple continues to make improvements in greening its products.

Energy Efficiency Improvements All Around

Back in 2009 Apple launched new batteries for the 17" MacBook Pro, which upped the ante in terms of thrifty energy consumption and lasted three times longer than the industry average. At the time, Jaymi wrote:
[The new technology] lays claim to a battery life improvement of 60%. The new battery can last up to 8 hours on a charge, and can be charged 1,000 times, equivalent to about 5 years. It's also recyclable at the end of it's life. But there are even more green features to this new technology.

Apple made a block of batteries, rather than the usual cylindrical cells that end up wasting space. The newly utilized space allows the notebook to have a 40% bigger battery, without making the notebook bigger.

Since then battery technology has improved further, but in many cases at the expense of user-repairability and user-replaceability.

The Snow Leopard OS has been replaced by Lion, but when Snow Leopard was launched it offered a 10% energy efficiency improvement over OS 10.5.6--which translated into a savings of a mere $1 per person annually on the electric bill.

Not a lot, right? Perhaps on the personal basis that's true, but when you extrapolate that energy savings across Apple's (at the time) annual sales of 10 million computers it could add up to a savings of 80 million kilowatt-hours annually.

That's the power of even small energy efficiency gains when they occur on a product or a company with tremendous reach.


Screen capture from Keynote presentation of iCloud.

But What's Powering iCloud?


Sticking with energy usage for a moment, when Apple recently announced its iCloud service, Mike raised some important questions about how green will this really be. Though Jobs said the data centers which are the backbone of iCloud were "as green as we could make them" there as still a good deal of unanswered questions about that.

Topping the list is electricity usage. Mike wrote:

While the building and equipment itself has an impact on the planet via the materials, embedded energy, and eventual disposal, a data-center is first and foremost a creature that is very hungry for energy. We're talking many megawatts... So it truly matters where the electricity is coming from. Is it hydro power? Coal? Wind? Solar? Did Apple build any on-site production capability? Are they buying straight from the local grid or are they buying renewable energy credits?

This is crucial. Should it come out that the primary energy source for the iCloud data centers is coal it really calls into question any statements about making them as green as possible. And could open up Apple to the sort of activism campaign waged against Facebook when it came out that it's new data center was coal-powered and therefore a greenhouse gas emissions spewing environmental nightmare.


image: Apple

Greener Materials, Less Packaging


There are a number of milestones that Apple has passed recently in terms of green its products and in how they are packaged. The new MacBook Air is exemplary of this:

The packaging uses "corrugated cardboard made from over 30 percent recycled content and molded fiber made entirely from recycled content. In addition, the packaging is extremely material efficient, allowing at least 15 percent more units to fit per shipping container than the original MacBook Air."

As Lloyd writes:

After years of complaints about Apple lagging on the green front, they are getting pretty aggressive, touting their carbon footprint and their material choices: Mercury-free display, Arsenic-free display glass, BFR (brominated flame retardants) free; PVC-free internal cables and power adapter DC cables.

Of course the new MacBook Air is manufactured in the same process of milling it out of a solid piece of aluminum that it introduced in the MacBook Pro line back at the end of 2008.

As Jaymi wrote at the time, the unibody enclosure allows the MacBook Pro to use 50% fewer parts, not to mention the recyclability of the aluminum enclosure--which takes some 13 steps to produce.

All of that is quite energy intensive, no doubt, but Jaymi's conclusion was that, "this process, despite flaws, has some real improvements for the notebook in the big picture of its lifetime and total footprint."

Let's remember in all this that there is still much that could be done to reduce the environmental impact of Apple's products, which is frankly true for all electronics companies.

After all, Apple still ranks 9th in Greenpeace's latest tally, dropping from 5th place in 2009. Greenpeace lauded Apple's reductions in toxic chemicals in its products, a good number questions remain regarding transparency and future plans to phase-out other toxics.

With a score of 4.9 out of 10 (with the top company, Nokia, receiving a 7.5), even with genuine improvements over the past few years, Apple still ranks decidedly in the middle of the pack.

Which, again, is probably indicative less of Apple's corporate attitudes towards the environment--the company certainly says all the right things and is heading in the right direction, despite ranking drops--and more a sign of how much more work needs to be done and can be done across the manufacturing, design, and energy sectors as a whole.


image: Apple

As for the bigger questions of our use of electronics, like planned obsolescence, rapid upgrade cycles, better user-repairability, let's leave those aside for the moment. To a large degree those are questions of the industry as a whole and not just Apple, even if Apple is a conveniently bold example of the trend.

As for what we'd like incoming CEO Tim Cook to do to further green Apple, that'll have to wait for another time as well.


And, One More Thing... Great Green Apps



While all the green-themed apps that have been created for the iPad and iPhone are more a function of people using Apple products in green ways rather than something Apple directly intended, we'd be remiss in not pointing out a few.

When Jaymi last surveyed the subject, there were 8 apps for measuring your carbon footprint, and at least triple that number of apps for monitoring your home's power, your solar power system, or otherwise controlling home automation. Not to mention a good number of apps for navigating public transit, car sharing, and apps for learning about the natural world.

Sure, there's been software that did all these things before the iPhone and iPad, but there's no denying that with these gadgets in your pocket (or bag in the case of the iPad, unless you've got some gigantic pockets...) you've got some powerful tools to help reduce your environmental impact.

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