Apple is a technology company, and it takes a lot of paper to package that technology.
On Monday, Apple announced a new initiative with the World Wildlife Fund to help align this forest-driven segment of its global supply chain with its aspirations to be a leader in sustainability and renewable energy production. According to the release, Apple’s goal is to “achieve a net-zero impact on the world’s supply of sustainable virgin fiber” — in other words, it wants to get 100 percent of its paper packaging from renewable sources. A renewable forest is one in which trees are grown and harvested in a sustainable fashion that does not require new forests to be cleared.
The company also announced it wants its supply chain to eventually be entirely powered by renewable energy, a much taller order than the previous objective of powering all of its facilities this way. Currently Apple generates enough renewable energy to power around 87 percent of its worldwide facilities. Including the supply chain will require some 60 times more power to come from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biogas, geothermal, and hydropower.
The new initiative focuses on China, where much of Apple’s manufacturing takes place, and where there is a long history of environmental degradation associated with unsustainable practices, including pollution, carbon emissions, and deforestation. The multi-year project aims to protect up to one million acres of “working forests” in China that will provide Apple with pulp, paper, and wood products.
“Forests, like energy, can be renewable resources,” said Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environmental Initiatives. “We believe we can run on naturally renewable resources and ensure that we protect — and create — as much sustainable working forest as needed to produce the virgin paper in our product packaging.”
In April, Apple announced it had sold just over 61 million iPhones in the first three months of 2015, a 40 percent increase over 2015. IPhone sales grew an astounding 72 percent in China during the same interval.
China is Apple’s biggest market outside of the U.S., and this new initiative comes on the heels of another partnership that reinforced the company’s efforts to improve its image and overall practices in the country. In April, Apple announced plans to partner with solar manufacturer SunPower to build two 20-megawatt solar projects in China’s Sichuan province. The solar plants will be Apple’s first in China.
Currently Apple directly employs about 8,000 people in China, but has helped create over three million jobs. The company’s efforts to rehabilitate its image also reflect negative attention regarding labor practices at some of these manufacturing hubs, such as Foxconn factories.
“We are excited to work with leaders in our supply chain who want to be on the cutting edge of China’s green transformation,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “We’ve set an example by greening our data centers, retail stores and corporate offices, and we’re ready to start leading the way toward reducing carbon emissions from manufacturing.”
China is the world’s leading timber importer. Lo Sze Ping, CEO for WWF China, said that this new collaboration will help reduce China’s ecological footprint by creating responsibly managed homegrown forests.
“Our hope is this will catalyze a new model of corporate leadership in promoting sustainable forest management and using paper resources more efficiently and responsibly around the world,” he said.
This new initiative is promising, but it’s also little more than a tree in a forest of similar forestry-related challenges in China and across Asia. As of 2011, upwards of half of all timber being shipped anywhere in the world was headed for China. The country’s vast market for wood has been contributing to large-scale deforestation in nearby forests located in places like Sumatra and Borneo. The drivers of this woody appetite include a wide range of sources; even demand for disposable chopsticks — the production of which has reached some 80 billion chopsticks a year — is a major environmental concern.
Agricultural demand, population growth, and major hydroelectric projects have also contributed to the loss of Chinese forests, which have been listed as threatened and in need of protection by the United Nations Environment Program.
Back on American soil, Apple is also partnering with environmental groups to develop sustainable forestry practices — although in smaller increments. The company recently purchased 36,000 acres of private forestland in Maine and North Carolina in conjunction with the Conservation Fund. The paper from the forestland will be used in Apple’s supply chain.