Raphael Lachkar
Sep 18, 2023

Apple raises the sustainability bar, yet Mother Nature yearns for more

Seen as a masterclass in repositioning corporate sustainability messaging, Apple's latest campaign, where it gets a sustainability interrogation from Mother Nature, still suffers from “vagueness,” says Vero's COO.

Apple raises the sustainability bar, yet Mother Nature yearns for more

Apple's yearly product release keynote update, which portrays Mother Nature sitting at a meeting with the Apple team discussing its commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, represents a significant shift in the way Apple approaches sustainability messaging. It reflects the increasing urgency of the climate crisis and the growing expectations of consumers for brands to take a proactive stance.

And where Apple goes, other corporate entities are likely to follow.

Customers today demand more than empty promises; they seek tangible actions from companies that can and must genuinely make a difference in the fight against climate change. It is no longer enough for brands to simply preach positivity—they must also deliver tangible results. In essence, "cut the BS and be useful" has become the new mantra of authentic climate-conscious branding.

Consequently, organisations face mounting risks of backlash when disseminating sustainability messaging. This change in consumer expectations, coupled with evolving legal precedents, has elevated the stakes associated with such communication. Brands can no longer afford to remain silent on environmental issues, as their words and actions are now scrutinized by consumers and regulators alike—especially if they’re as big as Apple.

A few months ago, Vero released a corporate sustainability messaging playbook to help brands navigate these challenges. We examined the common pitfalls of sustainability messaging among brands and offered a conceptual framework and practical suggestions regarding sustainability communications.

Back to Apple: Their commitment to sustainability is a complex endeavour. Their business model relies heavily on global logistics, distant manufacturing partners, access to rare materials, planned obsolescence, data centers, and the continued rise of global consumer purchasing power indices—factors that have historically contributed to negative environmental impacts. In addition, as the world's wealthiest company, they have the responsibility to lead in massive, all-encompassing ways—as anything less ambitious would not be accepted by their discerning global audience. Despite these challenges, Apple's recent sustainability statement stands out for several reasons. 

Format

Now, this is cleverly done. By opting for a mockumentary video of a meeting, Apple effectively addresses intricate topics while keeping viewers engaged with humour, quirky characters (Octavia Spencer as Mother Earth is standout), and visually appealing effects. The approach distinguishes Apple from the conventional 15-page online statements or impersonal infographic videos most brands deploy. 

Distant carbon neutrality

Secondly, Apple openly acknowledges that its 2020 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 is not sufficient. As Mother Nature’s assistant points out, “I think our 10’ o-clock said the same thing,” with Mother Nature adding, “They all do...”.  Clearly, Apple is signaling its readiness to surpass the efforts of other corporations and addresses the growing skepticism consumers have towards corporate environmental claims. 

Corporate vulnerability

Apple's choice to present a more subdued and vulnerable image in front of Mother Nature is also commendable. By depicting their team's stress and occasional missteps, they reveal the human side of corporate culture (leading with messaging vs. facts at counter 1:34, failing to integrate change at the individual level 2:11, mansplaining at 2:40). This vulnerability is essential for transparency, accountability, and ultimately achieving a positive impact. It grounds the organisation, however daunting that may be. 

Sustainability as a corporate strategy

It is worth noting that while Tim Cook is present, he's not the sole representative questioned by Mother Nature. This highlights the importance of a non-siloed approach to sustainability within organizations, emphasizing that sustainability should permeate all levels and departments and is not just the job of a CSO or a sustainability department. 

Executive accountability

Apple's decision to involve CEO Tim Cook in the video presentation is a wise decision. While the internet raves about Cook’s surprising acting chops, we see his projection of a concerned and deferential character (more akin to a junior team member pitching ideas to execs than being the leader of the world's most successful company) as a noteworthy approach to executive vulnerability and accountability. This reaffirms Apple's commitment to addressing the climate crisis as a monumental challenge that demands attention and action: it is bigger than them, it is difficult, and it is of the utmost importance for the organisation. 

Planting
trees forests

Corporate boasts of "planting trees" have become synonymous with greenwashing as they pivot the discussion to investments that do not challenge the organisation’s business model, where both the problem and the solutions reside. Mother Nature picks up on that thread: “Aha, everyone says they’re planting trees.” To counter this perception, Apple says that they are not merely planting trees but are working to establish entire forests, then explains how this is helping them track toward their long-term objective of "permanently removing carbon from the atmosphere." This is the sort of ambition we should expect from a company as wealthy and influential as Apple.

But as Tim Cook aptly points out, “There is still a lot more work to do.” With a bit of research and a diligent sense of greenwatching (aiming to dispel greenwashing bias from materials such as this video), we have also identified remaining pitfalls, which corrected would make close to exemplary sustainability communication. 

Relevance of data

Observers can recognise the net zero claims Apple makes, considering its direct operations, but mentions of its supply chain’s efforts seem difficult to track and measure. Of the Seven Sins of Greenwashing, this falls under “vagueness.” Full transparency regarding its concrete actions—no matter what the current results show—across all aspects of its global operations, from factories to distribution points, would strengthen Apple’s credibility and accountability and set clearer expectations. 

Three carbon-neutral products, then what?

The video’s less-than-subtle commercial introduction of three combinations of Apple Watches labelled carbon neutral raises questions of relevance. The brand here promotes an instance of minor progress to disguise a potential lack of progress across the rest of its portfolio. Greenwashing observers may call this a hidden trade-off. 

Where are the challenges?

While it is expected for a leading tech company to favor narratives of breakthroughs and innovations, it can also be worthwhile to acknowledge challenges—even unsolved ones. In this video, we can see the emotional challenge undergone by Apple’s teams, but the bottlenecks are practical complexities that are carefully avoided. Commenters have called out a couple of those:

  • What if less-carbon-intensive products sales soar? Wouldn’t overall emissions increase again?
  • What is the math behind carbon-neutral claims? Which parts do carbon removal, carbon credits, and actual carbon reduction play in the process?

Apple's latest sustainability video is a convincing blueprint for repositioning corporate sustainability messaging. It combines an engaging format, transparency, vulnerability, and data-backed claims to demonstrate a genuine commitment to combating climate change. It empowers audiences to fact-check and keep the company accountable for the monumental task it has set for itself and does so in a language all can understand. But like all corporate claims, the ones made here should be challenged and scrutinised.


Based in Vietnam, Raphael Lachkar is Vero’s chief operating officer and leads key growth verticals for the agency's five offices across ASEAN.

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