Apple is now a $1 trillion tech behemoth, but is our planet paying the price?

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Shutterstock Vytautas Kielaitis

As once said of Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility."

And whichever way you measure it — culturally, politically, financially — there are few more powerful entities in the world right now than Apple, and the wider technology sector that it bestrides. On Aug. 2, the business founded in Steve Jobs' garage in 1976 won the race to become the world's first public company worth $1 trillion, beating Silicon Valley rivals such as Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft to take the title.

It is hard to overemphasize the scale of this milestone. To put Apple's market size and profitability into perspective, the company is alone worth more than the economies of most nations, including Switzerland and Turkey, last year raking in net profits close to $50 billion. Yet even that doesn't actually place it that far ahead of its rivals. Throw Apple onto to the wider tech cart, and the top five firms are worth more than $3 trillion.

Stuffed with cash, this small corner of the United States — along with a few other companies dotted around the globe for good measure — has over the past two decades rapidly provided the drumbeat to which the rest of the planet dances. The planet, though, is paying a heavy, heavy price.

For a start, it is estimated 90 percent of all humanity's digital data has been generated in only the past two years, and if we have learned nothing else from Cambridge Analytica, it is that data means power. Less often highlighted, though, is the sheer amount of power required by data.

The data centers used to hold all the world's cat videos, memes and "Love Island" repeat streams are overwhelmingly fossil-fuelled and contribute to more than 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and growing, which is roughly on a par with the global aviation sector. Sending a single email with a large attachment has a carbon footprint of around 50g CO2e, or the equivalent to boiling a kettle.

And that's just energy. The iPhones, iPads and MacBooks — for which Jobs was revered as a genius of modern design — have built Apple into the behemoth it is today. But while these products continue to be coveted the world over for their sleek, simple ergonomics, their environmental credentials are more problematic. I would place a hefty bet that almost everyone you know has experienced a cracked screen, weak battery or sluggish operating system leading to an iPhone/iPad/MacBook replacement after a few years. Apple insists it is making progress on this front, but there is little doubt issues with obsolescence continue to dog the industry — numerous companies stop selling parts or offering service and support for older products in order to encourage sales for their latest products, while upgrades routinely lead to obsolescence.

And, built from many rare earth metals cheaply mined in China and Africa which can be toxic and damaging when they escape into the wider environment, the overwhelming majority of old gadgets still end up going to waste. There has been a raft of welcome initiatives to repair and recycle our phones and computers, but a 2015 U.N. report still estimated as much as 90 percent of the world's electronic waste — worth $19 billion — was being illegally traded or dumped.

As a result, a "Right to Repair" movement has built up, with legislation that would require electronics makers to offer repair information and parts to third party repair providers and product owners gaining support in 18 U.S. states. Yet Apple, which doesn't disclose recycling rates for old products through its own take-back scheme, is one company that has lobbied against such legislation.

Even so, it would be unfair to paint Apple as the only facilitator of our consumption-driven, throwaway economy. As Lord Stern concluded 10 years ago, the lack of a price on pollution is the biggest market failure the world has seen, a failure for which we are all complicit to varying extents. And, to its credit, Apple has been making concerted efforts to improve its environmental footprint over the past decade. It is investing in its own renewables, and claims its core business including all of its data centers is now 100 percent powered by clean energy. Attempts are also being made to clean up its supply chain, having recently a $300m clean energy fund in China.

Others tech firms are making positive moves. Both Dell and BT have "net positive" strategies through which they broadly aim to put more back into society — environmentally, socially and economically — than they take out.

After all, the opportunities from a more data-driven economy are huge, both for the tech sector, wider society and the environment. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative, a collaboration between major tech and electronics companies, estimates ICT solutions have the potential to maintain global CO2 emissions at 2015 levels, while enabling a whopping $11.4 trillion business benefits comprising $6.5 trillion in new revenues across key sectors and $4.9 trillion in cost savings from greater efficiencies and decreased waste.

If cleaner, more efficient means of powering data centers can be far more widely harnessed, and manufacturers collaborate across the supply chain to push more eco-friendly product design and create a much more circular economy for hardware, the tech sector can drive the planet towards a sustainable, low carbon future — at the same time as boosting and future-proofing its own business.

There are signs Apple is shifting its business model, partly in response to changes in consumer habits and partly because of its awareness of environmental risks. It is selling fewer iPhones but at a higher price, while diversifying its revenues more from dematerialized sources such as selling apps, cloud storage and music streaming, for example. Its investment in clean energy capacity is genuinely world-leading. But as the newly crowned leader of the global economy, and one which professes to take its green credentials seriously, Apple arguably has more influence than almost any other company on the direction of the global economy.

So while it would be a mistake to demonize tech giants when they hold the keys to a more sustainable future, companies such as Apple can and certainly should be doing a lot more to lead as an example for its incredibly rich and powerful tech sector peers. The signs are that as Apple embarks on the next phase of its history it is keen to take on this challenge and the hope is it can use its epic scale to normalize more sustainable business and production models across the industry. After all, with great power comes great responsibility, certainly, but also opportunity.

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