“Mother Nature” took this week’s fall Apple event by storm. She appeared in the form of actress and producer Octavia Spencer, playing the role of a sardonic inquisitor who cross-examines CEO Tim Cook on his company’s climate promises. Luckily, Cook knew how to win her over: with a new product. He presented the latest version of the Apple Watch, the company’s first offering that’s said to be completely “carbon neutral.”
The phrase “carbon neutral” is the rare bit of marketing speak that says exactly what it means: no extra carbon. No extra harm to our troubled planet. The label will be slapped onto a subset of 9th-generation Apple Watches with a particular combination of casing and wristbands. They will come in packaging emblazoned with a wreath of electric green leaves.
Kudos to you, buyer-to-be. You get to show off your new gadget and occupy the green moral high ground too. The company says it intends to use the Apple Watch as a model for making its entire product lineup carbon neutral by 2030.
That approach is a little confounding, says David Ho, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii, because more stuff always has an impact. “There is no such thing as a carbon-neutral product,” he says. “It’s kind of silly. It gives consumers the idea that there are ways out of these problems that don’t involve consuming less.” Unless the new Watch has been designed to suck CO2 directly from the atmosphere, he jokes, it’s not actually carbon neutral.
Apple appears to have taken many good steps along the road to its puzzling claim. The company is carrying out a deep clean of the Apple Watch supply chain, minimizing the use of airplanes to move around materials in favor of more fuel-efficient boats and trains, and using recycled materials for casings and batteries.
Perhaps most impressively, Apple is requiring its suppliers to use only renewable energy for Apple-related work—and investing alongside those suppliers in new clean energy sources. (Without new sources, clean energy pledges risk pushing other electricity users to dirtier fuels.) It also says it has calculated the lifetime electricity usage from an Apple Watch owner charging the device and will invest in its own power projects to compensate.
Let’s be clear: Most companies don’t make such laudable efforts to clean up their supply chains. Many are currently battling with US regulators over whether they should even be expected to tally up those emissions at all. They cry foul, citing their deep and complicated supply chains. Go back far enough—to, say, the distant processors of the ores that become the minerals that become their computer chips or face creams or coffee cups—and companies claim not to even know who to call upon to clean up their act. Oh, and it’s too expensive. Hardly worth the trouble.
Apple’s supply chain efforts, though heroic by comparison, illustrate the limits of how far corporate greening can get you toward carbon neutral—only about three-quarters of the way by the company’s estimation. Boats still burn fuel, after all. Recycled materials can’t cover everything. More stuff is still more stuff. So the rest comes from carbon credits, generated from investments in nature conservation and restoration projects intended to sock away CO2 so it can’t warm the globe.
Organizations such as the Advertising Standards Authority, the UK’s advertising regulator, have warned companies to take particular care when backing “carbon neutral” claims with carbon credits. The organization’s research found that consumers indeed take the phrase literally—“an absolute reduction in carbon emissions”—and then feel misled when it turns out to involve producing new emissions and then claiming some don’t count due to crediting, says Toby King, an ASA spokesperson. Such cases require “case-by-case” scrutiny, he adds.
Part of the problem is the slipperiness of attempting to tie a carbon credit—an abstract financial instrument—to any particular product in Apple’s armada of product offerings or the wider global economy. The Watch doesn’t have any role in creating those credits. They’re only brought together by an accountant’s sleight of hand.
Of course, that assumes you think carbon credits mean much in the first place. The credits don’t refer to carbon-sucking devices (though Apple is, to its credit, investing in those too as part of its broader sustainability efforts, at a smaller scale) but rather “nature-based” offsets. The company says that it has selected “high-quality” projects, a term for which there is no official arbiter apart from the private companies and NGOs involved in the process of buying and selling carbon credits.
For the Watch, Apple says it is expanding investments in what are known as “managed” forestry projects in Paraguay and Brazil. That generally means turning tracts of degraded grazing land, previously home to cattle, into tree plantations. Some carbon gets locked up in the farmed trees and then the products they become, and the operators also agree to set aside a greater percentage of the land for wild, unharvested growth than they ordinarily would.
Critics of projects like that say that even if any given plantation looks good, there are uncertainties about factors outside that land. The biggest potential problem is known as “leakage.” What stops a cattle operation displaced from a plot of land diverted to underpin carbon credits from sowing destruction somewhere else that isn’t managed or protected? In other cases, carbon credit projects have been accused of propping up companies that also engage in less forest-friendly work elsewhere. Apple declined to comment on the record but has said that in addition to standards like Verra's it will also directly verify projects using satellites and other technology.
Those problems often defy the good intentions of those paying for the carbon credits these projects underpin. A recent investigation by The Guardian found more than 90 percent of projects by Verra, a major carbon crediting body, didn’t actually put away additional carbon. Many of its projects simply pushed destruction elsewhere. (Verra disputes the research behind the analysis, though it has since updated its methodologies for conservation projects.)
Apple’s claim about its Watch bucks a trend that has seen companies decide to stop using the climate-neutral label when credits are involved—which they almost always are. Jetblue said last year that it will move away from carbon credits. So have companies like Gucci and Nestlé.
Apple is making progress toward reducing the carbon emissions involved in making its alluring products, in a world that still makes that hard to do. But perhaps it’s time to retire the phrase. No, your new watch isn’t carbon neutral. It’s more stuff, and more stuff always leaves a mark.
Additional reporting by Adrienne So