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Why Apple is buying and protecting forests

Inside the tech giant's strategy to lower its paper footprint in China and the United States.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from a speech, as prepared for delivery, given Friday by Lisa P. Jackson, vice president, environment, policy and social initiatives  at Apple, to Law Seminars International’s Natural Resource Damages Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was the first time Apple has talked publicly about the legal construct of its forestry projects, both in the United States and China.

We believe paper, like energy, can be a renewable resource. So we’re constantly looking for ways to lower the paper footprint that we use in our packaging. And we’ve made a commitment to zero out that impact by using paper more efficiently, increasing recycled paper content and sourcing paper sustainably. 

In fact, last year, over 99 percent of our product packaging came from paper that was recycled or sourced from sustainably managed forests. We’re doing this because we know the threat to the world’s working forests is an urgent, and often overlooked, challenge.

In the last 15 years, the U.S. alone already had lost 23 million acres of forestland that provided the pulp, paper and solid wood material for products we all use. That’s roughly an area the size of Maine.  And as land continues to be sold and change hands at an alarming rate, an estimated 45 million more acres are currently threatened by development. 

As a large consumer of paper, Apple also made a commitment to conserving acreage of working forests around the world equivalent to our virgin paper footprint.

So, as a large consumer of paper, Apple also made a commitment to conserving acreage of working forests around the world equivalent to our virgin paper footprint.

Once you come up with a strong commitment like that, the fun part is finding a way to do it. And that’s one of the things I love most about working at Apple. Presenting a challenge and then getting a group of people together in a room to find a solution. What came out of this particular brainstorm session was what I think is one of our most impactful solutions yet — we decided to buy some forests. 

Obviously, Apple isn't in the forestry business, so we sought out a partner with a shared mission and expertise in this space. Our search led us to the Conservation Fund. For Earth Day last year, we were happy to kick off a partnership to permanently protect ecologically significant forests that also can be used to produce raw materials for paper.

The Conservation Fund’s innovative model for acquiring and permanently protecting forests was one of the most appealing aspects of this project. Working with the fund, we first identified forests which we thought needed protection, but also that would be productive for paper.  They then went through the process of purchasing the forests, located in Maine and North Carolina.

But it doesn’t stop there. The program places conservation easements on the land, which ensures the trees are harvested sustainably and restricts converting the land to non-forest uses. And for further assurance, this land can only be sold with the conservation easements intact, and proceeds are reinvested to protect other vulnerable forestlands. 

To put it more plainly, this means the forests stay forests, even after we leave.

Thanks to this approach, Apple and the Conservation Fund are permanently protecting over 36,000 acres of working forest in the eastern United States. That includes 3,600 acres near Brunswick, North Carolina, which connects to the Green Swamp Preserve and is home to rare species such as the Venus flytrap. 

And, in Maine, we’re protecting more than 32,400 acres of forest, including wetlands and upland forest that are important for a number wildlife species in the iconic North Woods. That area links to more than a million acres of conserved lands and forest habitat that stretch into Canada and houses species such as the Atlantic salmon, the bald eagle and the Canada lynx. We’re committed to keeping these precious working forests intact to not only ensure continued fiber production, but also to protect jobs and recreational opportunities.

So, that’s what we’re doing in the U.S. But to truly make an impact, we wanted to go further and protect forests in China, which is the world’s largest producer and consumer of paper products.

To do this, we had to take a different approach. Not only are the environmental challenges different in China, but so is the legal system. For starters, easements are not currently available in China. So we went to another important partner in conservation, who has been navigating complex global environmental issues for decades: World Wildlife Fund. 

Not only are the environmental challenges different in China, but so is the legal system.

When we started thinking about this, one idea we had was to expand the coverage of working forest certification through an existing WWF program that provides technical assistance to landowners on how to do so. But we also knew that thinking about the long-term incentives to maintain certification was critical.

If we don’t have the easement, what guarantee do we have?

So we decided to look at economics. How can we protect forests, and provide economic support to the forest landowners and managers, as well as other people who rely on forests for their livelihoods? 

We launched our partnership with WWF to protect forest land in China last May, focused on working with companies to increase responsibly managed forests, and creating incentives in China’s domestic markets for purchasing products that come from these forests. We’re just over a year in but, if we can improve people’s livelihoods and the environment at the same time, we see huge potential for the scale and impact of this partnership. 

We’re addressing this effort in three pieces:

First, we’re increasing the amount of forest land in China that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an entity that WWF helped create 20 years ago. When a product receives this label, it means it comes from a responsibly managed forest. One that follows rigorous standards for environmental and social responsibility. 

When we do this, it’s not just the environment that benefits. Forest landowners who receive this certification see their products increase in value in the marketplace, and the communities benefit from the important standards FSC has put in place to protect their rights and improve their livelihoods. 

The impact of this is vast. Through our partnership, we’re creating up to 300,000 acres of FSC certified; and we’re helping to improve responsible management of up to 700,000 more acres of forests.

We’re also using our expertise to help drive improvements in China’s policy framework to encourage responsible forest management.

And finally, we’re establishing long-term market incentives in China for responsibly sourced paper. This is a new approach for China, and we’re hoping it will help position it as a country that uses less land, water and pollution to produce paper. But also one that still meets the high and growing demand for paper products. 

We’re using our expertise to help drive improvements in China’s policy framework to encourage responsible forest management.

We’re already seeing major results. Since launching the project in 2015, WWF has signed up forestry companies that are committed to certifying nearly 150,000 acres to the FSC standard and an additional 190,000 acres under improved management. These forests are already significantly contributing to Apple’s work to protect and create enough responsibly managed forests around the world to cover all our packaging needs. 

More importantly, we’re shifting the dynamics of the world’s paper market in both the short and long term, and in the process protecting some of the world’s most important forests.

Our forests work is so important because it gets right to the heart of Apple’s mission to leave the world better than we found it. But as our CEO often says, "You can’t change the world for the better if you only change yourself." 

If you know anyone who works for Apple, you will know that we are highly secretive about our ideas. We believe the ability to surprise and delight our customers is something that sets us apart. But this is an idea that we actually want other companies to copy. So we’re doing a lot of outreach to share ideas and best practices to help drive this process. 

The Conservation Fund and WWF have been phenomenal partners in this effort.

We’re really proud of what we’ve already been able to accomplish and optimistic about the impact we know we can have going forward.

Our work is far from done but, by leading this effort and encouraging others to join us, we’re taking an important step to protect this vital piece of our planet and restore one of the Earth’s most precious natural resources.

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