How Green Is Apple? A Closer Look at the iPhone-Maker's Sustainability Credentials

Commentary: Apple leads the smartphone industry in green innovations, but critics question its motivations and its record.

Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram Senior Editor
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia's financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
Expertise Huawei, Oppo, smartphones, smartwatches Credentials
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Sareena Dayaram
7 min read
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Apple/Screenshot by CNET

During its annual fall event, Apple announced more than just the iPhone 15 series -- the tech giant also took the time to tout its green credentials. 

Perhaps most notably, Apple released a video skit showing CEO Tim Cook and other employees joined by Mother Nature, played by Oscar-winning actor Octavia Spencer, for a meeting at its Apple Park headquarters. Over the course of the video, Cook and team attempt to win over an unimpressed Mother Nature by rattling off metrics showing its environmental friendliness across various company efforts -- namely materials, electricity and transportation. Apple also used the video to segue into its latest lineup of smartwatches.

"You're not trying to bribe Mother Nature with Apple swag?" asked a skeptical Mother Nature.

"It's Apple's very first carbon-neutral product," said Lisa Jackson, Apple's environmental boss, as she slid the company's new series of smartwatches forward.

"Hm. I want to see you do more of this," said Mother Nature.

"You will," Cook replied.

octavia spencer apple video

Hollywood luminary Octavia Spencer plays Mother Nature in a short film made by Apple about its environmental progress.

Apple/Screenshot by CNET

The video ends with a satisfied Mother Nature leaving the room, after which employees celebrate the success of their meeting with a mixture of glee and relief. 

The Apple Watch Series 9 along with the 2022 Watch SE, and new Ultra 2 represent the first wave of Apple products to carry carbon-neutral branding (but only with the choice of certain case and watchband materials). More products are expected to follow suit as part of Apple's pledge to achieve net zero climate impact for every device sold by 2030. 

Apple has long been keen to promote itself as an environmentally conscious company, as have its global smartphone rivals. But critics like Greenpeace's Xueying Wu argue that Apple's slew of green initiatives, including the carbon-neutral products and the decision to phase out leather in device cases, shouldn't overshadow the company's overall global environmental impact. It's important to hold Apple accountable for its overall carbon footprint, which is a key metric that makes a difference. 

The Apple Watch Series 9 is carbon-neutral, Apple says.

Apple/GIF by CNET

"We are glad to see that Apple has made progress on its products' lifecycle emissions reduction and neutralization," Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Xueying Wu told CNET. "However, the renewable energy ratio of some key suppliers, such as GoerTek, Foxconn, TSMC and so on, is below 11%." The renewable energy ratio is the percentage of energy consumed that comes from renewable sources.

Green supply chain

Greenpeace says a majority of carbon emissions in the electronics industry originate from electricity sourcing for manufacturing of components and devices. To achieve carbon neutrality, it's crucial for suppliers in big tech's extensive supply chain to adopt clean energy practices while creating and shipping parts, according to the nonprofit.

For its part, Apple made a commitment to decarbonize its supply chain by 2030. The company reports that 300 suppliers have already pledged to use clean energy, and this number has steadily increased over the years. Apple is also actively encouraging other companies to participate in its Supplier Clean Energy Program, which aims to power all suppliers with 100% renewable electricity. But those remain lofty goals, not realities.

"It's important to remember that not a single one of Apple's major suppliers has achieved 100% renewable energy across its own operations," Wu added. "Suppliers such as Foxconn and Samsung Electronics have been transitioning to renewable energy far too slowly."

Apple did not respond to a CNET request for comment. 

By comparison, Samsung announced its goal of achieving carbon neutrality and 100% renewable energy use by 2050. But the South Korean company has stopped short of extending that commitment to its supply chain, which is part of Scope 3 emissions as defined by the GHG Protocol.

"Samsung talks a lot about sustainability, but the reality is that Samsung's smartphone manufacturing process is powered in large part by fossil fuels, including coal," Greenpeace told CNET after Samsung's Unpacked promotional event in July. "While Samsung has achieved 100% renewable energy in the US, China and Europe, the vast majority of the company's manufacturing operations are located in South Korea, where Samsung has made little progress in the transition to clean energy." 

Smartphone emissions breakdown

In recent years, Apple has been paving the way with its environmental transparency communications, releasing timely product environmental reports even if it doesn't always lower iPhone lifecycle emissions. By comparison, Chinese rivals Huawei and Xiaomi provide little to no information about the environmental cost of creating their smartphones. Google started to do so more recently, but its Pixel 7 Pro has higher carbon lifecycle emissions than Apple. 

A typical phone generates most of its carbon emissions at the beginning of its lifecycle: the manufacturing stage. Take the iPhone 14 Pro, for example. Apple says (PDF) it emits 65 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during its lifecycle. Out of that, 81% is emitted during the production process, which Apple says includes extraction, production and transportation of raw materials, as well as the manufacturing, transport and assembly of all parts and product packaging. 

This means the manufacturing process is the most carbon-intensive phase of the iPhone's lifecycle, dwarfing carbon dioxide emitted in the remaining phases: transport to storefronts, daily use by owners and end of life, although their environmental impact is still significant. 

This isn't unique to just the iPhone. Samsung estimates (PDF) its Galaxy S23 Plus phone produces 58.8 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents across its lifetime, of which 83% takes place during production. Google says its flagship Pixel 7 phone produces roughly 84% of carbon emissions per phone at the manufacturing stage of its lifecycle. 

"Consumer electronics suppliers, including semiconductor manufacturers, display manufacturers and final assemblers, account for more than three quarters of the electronics industry's total emissions," according to Greenpeace. "And electricity consumption is where most emissions come from during the manufacturing process."

With the iPhone 15 Pro, Apple said (PDF) carbon emissions went up to 66 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. But it would have been 26 kg higher, the company says, if not for a combination of using more recycled or renewable content and "clean electricity solutions that suppliers have already implemented." 

Image of mobile phone

The Fairphone 5 has a removable battery.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

While Apple has made significant commitments to environmental sustainability, another company has taken a seemingly more genuine approach to sustainability. Fairphone is a Dutch social enterprise that designs and produces smartphones with a focus on ethical practices and improving the lives of workers and miners. 

Unlike Apple or Samsung, Fairphone doesn't necessarily want you to pony up for a new or upgraded phone every year. It'd prefer you repair the existing one you have if there are issues. (Say what?) You can even use a regular screwdriver to open the phone's internals for repairs, which is far different than the specialty kits needed to dig into iPhones and other premium Android devices. The Fairphone 5's modular design lends itself to ease of repairability: The battery is removable, while the camera modules, USB-C port, body and speakers are all individual components, with replaceable parts available to customers. 

The Fairphone also comes with five years of warranty, which handily beat the warranties offered by juggernauts like Apple and Samsung. By comparison, iPhones have a one-year warranty period, which can be extended for another two years if you buy Apple Care. Samsung phones have the same coverage as Apple, if you buy the extra two years via Samsung Care Plus.

"Fairphone has never been just about selling electronics: We're out to change an industry that has improved consumers' lives while making the world worse -- with mountains of e-waste, unsafe mines, corruption, violence, child labor and harrowing factory conditions. We simply don't accept that these are the necessary or acceptable costs of doing business," said Eva Gouwens, CEO of Fairphone, in a statement on the company website.

Our take: Apple's sincerity problem

Apple has made strides in its sustainability efforts, leading the pack of major phone-makers globally. The regular communication of its environmental metrics, its drive to produce carbon-neutral products and growing numbers in supplier commitments are all efforts that deserve acknowledgement, even if Apple's not perfect.

However, these green initiatives, while significant, are juxtaposed against Apple's aggressive product launch cycle, raising doubts about the company's motives and sincerity toward the cause, and whether it's as environmentally friendly as it continues to boast. With each new iPhone release, tens of millions of people around the world are enticed to upgrade, even if the changes are relatively minor. Add to this Apple's reluctance to transition to universal ports like USB-C, and one can't help but wonder about the company's motivations. Is the green push a genuine commitment or a well-timed marketing strategy to appeal to an increasingly environmentally conscious consumer base? Or both?

If Apple was truly prioritizing the environment, it might encourage extended device use and consider lengthening the time between major releases. By doing so, the company could better demonstrate its commitment to the environment. But at the same time, Apple is a publicly listed company that's designed to protect and grow its bottom line. What gives?

The challenge for Apple, and any of its peers, will be to strike a balance between business goals and real environmental commitments. Until then, the tech giant remains under the discerning eye of skeptics. Apple's journey on the green path is still in its early stages, but it's a journey worth observing.