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Amazon and Apple: A tale of two closed-loop visions

There's some serious out of the box thinking.

There's some serious out of the box thinking.

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Apple is the world's most valuable company by market capitalization. Amazon is the world's biggest online retailer. The vastly different businesses share in common an epic scale, with immense impacts on natural systems and countless opportunities to lead markets in sustainability. 

Lately, each company is also more visibly accelerating its circular economy visions and practices. The GreenBiz Circularity 21 virtual event last week offered a rare glimpse behind their curtains, featuring separate conversations with Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, and George Bandy, Amazon's new head of worldwide circular economy.

Although the companies are entirely distinct beasts, let’s make some Apple-to-Amazon comparisons. They are both technology leaders with colossal footprints in cloud computing, with innovative algorithms and an embrace of artificial intelligence. They have both become ubiquitous, commanding outsize loyalty from consumers. The similarities may roughly end there.

Amazon is a relative youth, founded in 1994, next to the middle-aged Apple, born in 1976. Kara Hurst made headlines in 2014 becoming Amazon’s first worldwide leader of sustainability, about a year after Apple brought on former EPA chief Jackson. Bandy, former Mohawk Group CSO, came to Amazon in January.

George Bandy, Amazon's head of circular economy, at Circularity 21

The big pictures

The Climate Pledge, which Amazon co-founded in 2019, attracting 108 signatories to date, is "to be net zero carbon across our business by 2040." It's directly connected to the company’s circular economy efforts, Bandy said. That's because minimizing waste, increasing recycling and providing options to customers to use, repair and recycle their products ultimately lowers Amazon’s carbon footprint as more material goes back into a circular economy rather than into landfills.

Apple, whose operations are already carbon neutral, is on the path toward carbon neutrality in all of its products by 2030. Circular efforts are vital to achieving carbon neutrality, Jackson said, citing how Apple's work on recycling has led its carbon emissions associated with aluminum to decrease by 72 percent since 2015. "So you can see how those two basically play off against each other and in a very reinforcing way."

Apple's sustainability efforts notably extend to its procurement team engaging creatively, even forcefully, with suppliers as well. "We knew when we started the work on the circular economy that we would have to pioneer certain materials, or at least convince suppliers that we were a viable end market, if they were to put in the extra work," Jackson said.

As Apple sources post-consumer recycled aluminum externally, it seeks to reassure suppliers that it supports their work in producing the highest quality material. "We're trying to help using the power of our pocketbook and our bully pulpit with our suppliers to say this is what we want you to do alongside of us." 

Consumer obsession

"Customer obsession" is a uniquely Amazon term for a platform for delivering nearly anything people want to their doorstep, and that appears true of the company's current circular economy focus. Communicating with customers is an area of laser focus moving forward, Bandy said. He described the “point of opportunity," whether through research or the point of purchase, as a chance for Amazon to influence and educate consumers and customers about how to use their resources more strategically and contribute to a circular economy. 

For example, the Amazon Second Chance hub links to options for consumers to “pass it on, trade it in, give it a second life,” including for recycling packaging, trading in or repairing electronics and buying used goods. These options are probably not as well known as Amazon would like them to be.

Apple, by contrast, has well-established in-person and remote help desks for its electronics, as well as long-running return, refurbishment and upgrade programs. These options all keep molecules in use and out of landfills. Of course, although the company attracts cultish devotion from many consumers, it also faces longtime complaints from right-to-repair advocates.

It's a wrap

The Amazon Prime delivery box is a 21st-century icon, fraught with potential for dead-tree waste and abuse. Amazon has created algorithms to "right-size" its packaging material, reducing the weight of outbound packaging by 36 percent, eliminating 1 million tons of material equivalent to about 2 billion shipping boxes, Bandy said. It also has taken 27 million plastic bags from device packaging out of the picture in 2020.

Meanwhile, Amazon seeks for all of its device packaging to be curbside-recycled by 2023. Toward that end, in 2018 the giant announced a $10 million investment in the Closed Loop Infrastructure Fund to improve curbside recycling for 3 million U.S. households.

Lisa Jackson, Apple's sustainability chief, at Circularity 21

"It's a collaborative partnership," Bandy said. "We've got to help our customers be able to get the materials back to us, and we've got to begin to develop circular economy models that allow the communities to also be able to benefit from creating ways to refurbish and use the materials in a different way, and then getting the raw materials back so we use them in a different way."

Although Jackson did not touch on Apple's packaging in last week's conversation with GreenBiz co-founder and Chairman Joel Makower, the company's innovative designs involve sustainable, renewable fibers in packaging.

Material matters

Apple, in terms of manufacturing, has shared cutting-edge ambitions that include closing the loop on specialized materials making up its electronics. Figuring out circular gold, tungsten and copper will bring the company 90 percent of the way toward fully recycled or renewable materials, Jackson said. Apple has created the Daisy, Liam and Dave robots as "specialty vendors" that recover certain materials from used products. Dave's job, for example, is to recover tungsten from the taptic engine in hard-to-pry-apart iPhones.

Jackson described circular success so far: The Macbook Air includes 40 percent recycled content with a 100 percent-recycled aluminum enclosure. The new iPhone 12 Pro has 99 percent recycled tungsten and 98 percent recycled rare earth elements, with magnets from recycled rare earths as well. Each magnet in Apple’s MagSafe chargers is sourced from post-industrial scrap.

Bandy's discussion with GreenBiz Director and Senior Analyst Lauren Phipps did not touch on the company's AmazonBasics branded goods in a wide array of categories, from batteries to bedding and from computer accessories to clothing.

Where social meets circular

Bandy, who worked as vice president of sustainability under the late Interface carpet founder and sustainability legend Ray Anderson, sees sustainability reaching a new peak in interest by younger consumers, a cycle that repeats some of what happened when raw material costs rose around 2000 and 2010. In the past, however, people thought about sustainability in a more linear fashion, in terms of specific, siloed areas of expertise, he said. "What circular economy does is it builds those bridges between the things that we had not thought about in terms of the connectivity in a different way."

Bandy wants it to be known that by embracing circular principles at a strategic level, Amazon can have an impact on social justice issues, engagement and the creation of businesses, partnerships and collaborations. "As we begin to build this out, and people see us begin to invest in these communities and invest in these opportunities, I think the legacy that we will leave will be how many other organizations are spawned to do the same thing," he said. 

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd last year, Amazon with the Amazon Black Employee Network pledged $10 million to organizations combating racism and supporting Black communities, from the ACLU Foundation to Year Up.

Around the same time, Apple established a sweeping, $100 million long-term effort called Racial Equity Justice Initiative (REJI), which Jackson leads. She noted the popular notion of justice as removing pollution from underserved communities. "But there's the other side of justice, which is if the clean energy economy, if the recycling economy, if the circular economy is really going to be just, it's going to lift up communities who right now don't see jobs and opportunities and clean energy or the circular economy."

And that’s why Apple’s impact accelerator is giving a leg up to Black and Brown businesses, including $25 million earmarked in January for the Propel Center in Atlanta. "It's about expanding access to opportunity in a sector that we all know is going to be incredibly important over the next decades and ensuring that there's a diverse group of businesswomen and men who are ready to take on the mantle of business leadership in this area," Jackson said.

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