Bad Apple: Evaluating The Tech Company’s Sustainability

With billions in assets, Apple could have a huge influence in global sustainability. But it has yet to do anything to make its products more sustainable.

“Apple Alert”
Joseph G. Brin © 2012

In response to Stephan Clambaneva’s remarks about Apple’s recycling efforts, I mostly disagree with what he’s saying, not because I think he’s wrong, but I tend to have a different meter for sustainability than others, especially industrial designers.

The part of Stephan’s defense of Apple I most agree with is that people don’t just throw away the company’s products. Many even keep the packaging. I think this has to do with the intrinsic value people attribute to Apple’s products, as well as their fanatic allegiance to the brand. The fact that Apple products are more expensive may have something to do with users hanging on to them, too. I know people who keep their old laptops like books on a shelf, again this could just be a designer mentality, or could be a genuine concern for the environment. I don’t necessarily agree with the “quick to replace” idea, though.

There are a lot of early adopters of new technology in the Apple user group. Many will line up every season for the next best product, even though the previous version still works well. Not everyone does that but enough do, to impact consumer demand, which, in turn, impacts resources. Probably the same can be said for big fans of Motorola or Windows phones. Regardless of the brand, you will get people buying the newest and best, and there will be others who will keep their phones even when the number 5 button stops working.

As for the reduction of objects due to the digitization… I don’t know if there are any statistics to support this theory. You could argue that being connected to Amazon 24/7/365 we have bought more compasses, flashlights, etc. and increased demand for these goods. I don’t have those statistics either. I would, however, venture to guess that it’s relatively easy to show that increased access to goods increases the sales of those goods, be this increased access through receiving catalogs in the mail, malls being built, or online stores created. Again which comes first, the products to buy or the new ways of selling them?

If I wanted a truly dependable compass, for instance, I would buy one that didn’t rely on batteries and have access to GPS. Again I have no way to disprove Stephan’s thoughts on the dematerialization of things. Until we get Star Trek technology that can materialize objects – cups of tea – the physical refinement of resources and manufacturing of goods aren’t going away any time soon.

Stephan also goes on to talk about technologies being combined into fewer devices: a tablet + phone + camera + notebook. I have seen quite a lot of people who still have one, or in some cases multiples, of each of these. I think the reduction of items will happen eventually. For example, for some people the 6 megapixel camera on a phone is plenty while others need (and or want) a Nikon SLR with 12 megapixels and changeable lenses.

Frankly, I don’t think Apple has really done much of anything to make their products more sustainable, in my understanding of and approach to the topic. Aluminum and glass aren’t found in nature in the form they are used–they are highly processed. The aluminum is easy to recycle once all the other bits are taken off. I think aluminum is a better choice then plastic, not necessarily for its ease of recycling but because aluminum bends instead of breaks, cracks, or shatters. Increased durability means longer life span. The glass, I think, has special coatings and chemicals on it, at least the touch screens do, which doesn’t allow it to be that easily recycled, plus it has to be removed from the device first. Sure Apple has a return policy so the objects can be disassembled. But how many people actually do this? And where are the discards taken apart? Are they sent around the world, before they’re disassembled? And under what conditions are they take apart and by whom?

An instructive tangent is worth taking here: Once I took a workshop in glass blowing where the master glass blower recommended that we stop recycling glass and, instead, throw all clean glass back in the ocean. The ocean will grind it back to sand, which can be made into glass. He went on to say that there won’t ever be a shortage of silica and that we expend way more energy melting down glass to recycle it then if we just kept gathering raw sand.

If Apple wanted to make significant changes to consumer electronics, they could. With its billions in assets, the company could have a huge influence in global sustainability. Interface Carpet comes to mind as a company that took a stance and did things differently. Is it easier to make carpet then a cell phone, yes, but could Apple redirect their massive corporation? Yes (that’s easy for me to say, of course). The company’s enormous worth gives it the freedom to invest in something other then itself. If tomorrow Apple said we are going to manufacture everything in the United States, make everything we make 100% disassemble-able and made with replenish-able resources, using 100% renewable energy—this would happen, but only if they invested in it!

What would happen if Apple spent its money this way? New technologies would be invented, new materials would be created, new products would be designed and made, new jobs would be created, new businesses would start, new industries would evolve…. All this for the production of goods, physical objects and not digital things–without the physical things the digital apps don’t mean anything…. I could go on and on.

I haven’t even asked if a corporation the size of Apple could ever really be sustainable in a way that does not do “less harm,” but does “no harm” and actually replenishes resources, creates sustainable economies, treats workers ethically… I think they could get there if they decided to evolve and, most importantly, if they use design in new ways other then just putting their industrial designers in the service of manufacturing new needs.

My argument goes beyond Apple, of course: I am of the opinion that more people doing more varied things with more varied approaches is what global manufacturing needs to become sustainable which, in turn, may give new meaning to industrial design, and purpose to those who practice it.

Andrew Dahlgren is a designer, organizer, maker, and teacher. His focus is ADMK, a knit fabric, accessories, and garment production company in Philadelphia. Between 2008 and 2010 Andrew was involved with organizing several projects and events: Philly Works, Made in Philly, and Urban Studio – helping independent designers and makers gain a wider audience. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in industrial design from North Carolina State University College of Design and The University of the Arts (UArts), Philadelphia, respectively. He teaches industrial design at UArts, product design at Parsons The New School, and architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Categories: Sustainability, Tech Products

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