The iPhone is greener, but that's not the big sustainability story

Lisa Jackson of Apple
© Lisa Jackson of Apple

The fact that it is supposed to last longer is a bigger deal.

Lisa Jackson, Apple's VP of environment, policy and social initiatives, was very impressive at the iPhone launch, but this is perhaps the most interesting thing she said:

We also make sure to design durable products that last as long as possible. That means long-lasting hardware, coupled with our amazing software. Because they last longer, you can keep using them. And keeping using them is the best thing for the planet.

She made announcements about using more recycled materials and bioplastics, but this seemed out of place when they are showing all these fancy new phones. Of course, keeping your old phone is the greenest thing you can do. Keeping IOS 12 backward compatible with old phones is also a nice move. Doesn't seem like much of a business model, though; as Melissa noted earlier, we thought their business was an "annual parade of new gizmos and the public’s seemingly mindless lining-up to buy them, when most of us already have a perfectly fine device to use."

Analyst Horace Dediu also wondered what they are thinking.

At this point in the presentation I wondered if everyone would rush out of the room and call their broker to sell Apple shares. One premise of investing in durable goods hardware companies is that value depends on frequency of upgrades. If products are not replaced frequently they do not generate revenues and the company selling them ends up growing very slowly if at all after markets saturate.

He wonders why Apple would do this and concludes:

The important call to make is that Apple is making a bet that sustainability is a growth business. Fundamentally, Apple is betting on having customers, not selling them products.

This actually makes a great deal of sense. People are changing their phones and and computers at a slower rate; I am perfectly happy with my 7+ phone and see no reason to change it. My iMac Pro has been cranking out TreeHugger posts since 2012. But I am now deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, with their music and their storage services as well as a lot of hardware. Dediu concludes:

This is a hardware-as-platform and hardware-as-subscription model that no other hardware company can match. It is not only highly responsible but it’s highly defensible and therefore a great business. Planned obsolescence is a bad business and is not defensible. Therefore the statement that Apple now prioritizes device and software longevity is very important and I consider it one of the most important statements made during the 2018 iPhone launch event.

One DeviceThe One Device/Screen capture

In his wonderful book, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant calculated that it took 75 pounds of rock to make a phone, and that "a billion iPhones had been sold by 2016, which translates into 34 billion kilos (37 million tons) of mined rock." A bit of recycled tin is not going to reduce that pile by much. That's why on TreeHugger we have always preached that reuse and repair was far more important than recycling.

If what Lisa Jackson says is true, that iPhones will last longer and be supported longer, that means a lot less mining. Dediu is right; that is really important.

The iPhone is greener, but that's not the big sustainability story
The fact that it is supposed to last longer is a bigger deal.

Related Content on Treehugger.com