Good news! Your MacBook Pro is saving the world

Chances are, if you're reading these words on The Chronicle’s website, then you’re probably using an Apple device to do so. No need for statistics to back up that observation; a quick look around our campus tells the story. Apple loves college students so much that they offer an education pricing discount that drops a $2,499 laptop to just $2,299! Oh wow — a whole $200 discount! I'm not even going to apologize for being snarky about it: Most student discounts are at least in the double-digit range. In case that slam-dunk education-pricing deal isn’t enough to get you in those shiny glass doors of an Apple store, what if you could now feel good about buying a new laptop? No, not through your wallet, silly, but your conscience!

Well, thanks to Apple’s new sustainability PRvideo (starring none other than Octavia Spencer herself), you can!

In this five-minute advertisement (let's call it what it is), Apple executives — including the one and only Tim Cook — nervously gather around a conference room table while awaiting the arrival of their esteemed guest Mother Nature. Octavia Butler, as Mother Nature, wastes no time and starts grilling the Apple executives about the status of their sustainability report, throwing in some witty jokes about it being her third corporate visit of the day and her readiness for disappointment.

However, with every pointed question Octavia throws their way, an Apple employee is armed with an answer. Through this back-and-forth, Apple highlights its most impressive efforts: eliminating plastic from all packaging, crafting laptops from recycled aluminum, and powering all stores and office buildings with clean energy. The video concludes as Octavia makes her dramatic exit, the conference table exhales a sigh of relief, having successfully navigated a stressful encounter with Mother Nature.

Despite my general criticism of corporate promotional material, I must acknowledge Apple's achievements and efforts. Instead of just commencing with a typical product launch, they are taking significant steps to use sustainability as a differentiator and a new standard. They are striving to effect change, sharing their progress and opening themselves up to criticism and commentary, much like what I'm doing right now. Bottom line, this is far better than what most businesses are doing today.

Okay, enough praise.

My primary concern with the video is that Apple is creating its own criticism and rebutting it right then and there, alluding to a facade of infallibility. When you create a product whose supply chain spans continents, these types of conversations need to be had with not only their shareholders but also their stakeholders. It didn't seem like there was much of an open-door conversation within that boardroom.

Additionally, It’s really hard to preach sustainability when your business model thrives on a cycle of consumerism and overconsumption. Every fall, Apple releases shiny new products, expecting you to buy them — even when your old phone probably works just fine. To truly be sustainable, they must extend the life cycle of their product, and discourage consumption. Also, it’s worth mentioning that Apple recently faced a lawsuit in which they were found guilty of intentionally slowing down their products as a strategy to encourage consumers to replace their devices sooner than necessary. Octavia should have asked them about that.

An alternative business model that Apple could consider is adopting a product-as-a-service model. Instead of the traditional practice of buying a new phone every year, customers could opt for a "subscription" for phone usage. While new phones would still be available for outright purchase, this model would offer consumers the option to essentially "rent" a phone. Such an approach would encourage Apple to continually enhance and update its existing product lines, diverting attention away from the annual product releases and contributing to a reduction in electronic waste.

However, it's essential to acknowledge that a radical shift in Apple's business model may not be on the horizon. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that Apple is actively working to reduce its environmental footprint and transition towards a more sustainable, circular product approach.

I think the responsibility to do better not only falls on Apple’s shoulders but ours as well. Yes, Apple is the one who is making the phones, but we are the ones demanding them. I know I might sound old when I say this but it’s crazy how a piece of technology that would have been novel just 20 years ago, now gets discarded just because it's a “little slow”. And for Apple, they need to work on consumer education if they are going to keep pumping out phones every year, people need to know what to do with their old ones. How many people know off the top of their heads where they can properly recycle or dispose of their electronic waste? I sure don’t. Apple needs to show a little more responsibility for their product’s entire lifecycle and not just say “bye-bye” to the phones as you’re walking out of a store or after it gets shipped out from their warehouse. 

Morgan Foster is a graduate student at the Nicholas School for the Environment. Her column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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