Apple faces scrutiny from European environmental and consumer groups over its claims that its latest devices are “carbon neutral”, a term that Brussels proposes to ban in corporate marketing because it is “misleading”.
The iPhone maker last month put its “environmentally friendly” credentials at the centre of its biggest annual product launch. It called some Apple Watch models its “first-ever carbon neutral products”, part of a drive to extend the classification across all its devices by the end of the decade.
But the US tech giant’s decision to rely on credits to cancel out the 7-12kg of greenhouse gas emissions behind each new Watch prompted a sharp reaction from consumer groups in the wake of a long-trailed clampdown by the EU on “greenwashing”.
“Carbon neutral claims are scientifically inaccurate and mislead consumers,” Monique Goyens, the director-general of BEUC, the European consumer organisation, told the Financial Times. “The EU’s recent decision to ban carbon neutral claims will rightly clear the market of such bogus messages, and Apple Watches should be no exception.”
The debate over Apple’s claims highlights the problems facing companies that are trying to follow environmentally sound policies, while seeking to make marketing statements to tout their green credentials.
Apple told the FT its move was “a proof point of one of the boldest climate commitments in industry today”. “To achieve global climate goals, we need immediate action to drastically cut emissions paired with investments in conservation and carbon removal at scale,” it said.
The US group’s efforts as well as its progress on recycling targets and emission cuts are in sharp contrast to, for example, its main rival Samsung, which leaves out key emission details in its 2050 net zero target.
In the days following the Watch launch, Brussels said that by 2026 it would ban “neutrality” claims that are based on the purchase of carbon credits, which compensate for the release of emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The European parliament and Council, two decision-making bodies, reached a political agreement in September to ban “misleading advertisements”, including “claims based on emissions offsetting schemes that a product has neutral, reduced or positive impact on the environment”. This accord is yet to be formally adopted.
Climate campaigners have also questioned whether tracking carbon emissions provided a thorough assessment of the environmental impact of small electronic devices such as smartwatches and wireless earbuds, which can be difficult to repair and often end up as e-waste.
“It’s misleading to consumers to give the impression that buying the Watch has no impact on the climate at all,” said Gilles Dufrasne, a policy officer at the non-profit Carbon Market Watch, which is in part funded by the EU. “It’s accounting tricks.”
Independent non-profit climate change organisations question whether the carbon credits purchased by Apple at the end of each fiscal year are of a high enough quality to remove carbon dioxide permanently from the atmosphere.
Apple says the credits will make up for emissions linked to the Watch’s manufacturing, shipping and charging over its lifetime, thanks to carbon absorbed by timber plantations and reforestation projects on land that had previously been deforested for cattle-ranching in Paraguay and Brazil, or similar projects. These schemes help restore native forest and create economic opportunities for local communities, Apple adds.
But critics have cast doubt on these plans. Niklas Kaskeala, chair of the board at the Compensate Foundation, a non-profit adviser to potential buyers of carbon credits, said offsets based on timber plantations such as these presented “systemic flaws”.
“Trees are turned into pulp and cardboard or toilet paper,” Kaskeala said, highlighting that “the carbon stored in these products is released back into the atmosphere very quickly”.
Documents detailing one scheme Apple has backed through a conservation fund show that the majority of the newly planted trees are chopped down to be sold as timber in little more than a decade.
That project, called Forestal Apepu, repurposed land in Paraguay that was formerly used for soy, corn and beef production by planting trees, mostly eucalyptus, with up to 25 per cent left as “natural forest”. The documents described eucalyptus, which is often criticised when it is grown in “monocultures”, as suitable for the production of “quality timber”. About 1 per cent of the land is set aside to regrow native species.
“Our approach to decarbonising products offers a rigorous blueprint for how businesses can do their part, prioritising deep emissions reductions across our value chain before applying high-quality carbon credits,” Apple said. “We are committed to driving new innovations to lower emissions and to scaling nature-based carbon removal as we accelerate progress towards 2030.”
Scientists at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said that other carbon removal techniques, such as injecting carbon dioxide into rocks, are generally more effective at locking the greenhouse gas away long-term than vegetation-based approaches.
Race to zero
Apple’s Watch nonetheless shows progress on its materials recycling targets, with the latest edition for example using only recycled cobalt in the battery and recycled aluminium in the casing.
The Silicon Valley company has cut up to 81 per cent of emissions linked to the Watch compared with a 2015 baseline and has promised to cut 90 per cent of group-level emissions from that baseline by 2050.
In contrast, its main rival Samsung does not include emissions from manufacturing and consumer product use — the much larger part of its carbon footprint — in its 2050 net zero target.
Samsung told the FT it was evaluating its carbon levels and “evolving [its] approach to reflect the actions needed to achieve net zero”.
Apple claims the manufacturing process for its Watch is already powered by “100 per cent clean electricity”. Apple “matches” any electricity use by its suppliers from power grids that is generated from fossil fuels, by investing in what it describes as “clean energy projects”.
However, NewClimate Institute, a non-profit organisation, said Apple’s “assertion” that it only used clean electricity for manufacturing was “highly contentious, since Apple’s major suppliers continue to have very low renewable electricity shares”.