How closed-loop supply chains are spurring Apple’s decarbonisation efforts

EXCLUSIVE: Apple's vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives Lisa Jackson believes that companies should look at the synergies between the circular economy and decarbonisation in order to create resilient supply chains.

How closed-loop supply chains are spurring Apple’s decarbonisation efforts

Jackson believes that closed-loop

Having already powered 100% of its global facilities across 43 countries with renewable energy, Apple has been targeting uptake of clean energy in the supply chain since 2015.

The tech giant has also realised that benefits that championing recyclability and circularity can bring to decarbonising its supply chain and the products it manufactures and has pledged to develop new products that only use renewable resources or recycled materials to “one day stop mining the earth altogether”.

The latter ambition was announced in 2017 and the company’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives Lisa Jackson has revealed that the company has already found synergies and benefits in coupling closed-loop principles with low-carbon ambitions.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in our supply chain and have been amongst the first to take responsibility for our suppliers and their actions in relation to clean energy,” Jackson told edie exclusively. “We also think the circular economy is really important and have a responsibility as a manufacturer to be as careful with the materials we use as possible.

“If you’re a manufacturer, you should absolutely look at low-carbon and closed-loop in synergy and I think that is going to be a huge advantage for Apple, because I’m not sure if many other companies are doing that right now.”

Apple is widely regarded as an industry leader in terms of supply chain sustainability, having topped the 2018 Green Supply Chain Corporate Information Transparency Index (CITI). The company has launched huge programmes aimed at mobilising suppliers to procure clean energy.

The company is on track to exceed its 2020 ambition of delivering 4GW of renewable energy into its supply chain, with 44 key suppliers having joined its Supplier Clean Energy Programme since the initiative launched in 2015. The programme lowered Apple’s carbon footprint by nearly 3.6 million metric tons compared to last year.

The programme has contributed to an overall reduction of Apple’s entire carbon footprint (including scope 3) of 35% since it peaked in 2015. Operational emissions have also been slashed by 64% since 2011.

Jackson noted that Apple suppliers haven’t been challenged by the cost of moving to clean energy, but rather that some may lack the “knowhow and confidence” to navigate new energy contracts or seek out onsite solutions.

Apple has largely facilitated financial support for clean energy drives in the supply chain. The China Clean Energy Fund, for example, is a first-of-its-kind investment fund in China to connect suppliers with renewable energy sources is running for four years and Apple will jointly invest around $300m.

Of the renewable energy projects Apple has helped create, the company has direct ownership for more than 600MW, making it among the largest non-energy company investors in renewables.

Resource efficiency

A recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) found that the uptake of renewables will only account for 55% of the emissions reductions required to create a net-zero economy, with the circular economy listed as a key tool to tackling the remaining emissions.

Apple’s resource efficiency ambitions are more recent, but are already assisting with the wider decarbonisation agenda, echoing the findings of the EMF report.

The firm is working towards an ongoing goal of using 100% closed-loop materials in its products. Apple diverted more than 48,000 metric tonnes of electronic waste from landfill during 2018 – including the recycled tin it uses to make logic boards and the recycled aluminium used in its MacBook Air and Mac Mini models. To upscale these efforts, the company launched a dedicated research and development lab for material recovery in Texas.

In the last year, emissions from aluminium used in Apple products has fallen by 45%. This has been achieved by sourcing aluminium from hydro-powered smelters and increasing the recycled content used in the products. In fact, the 100% recycled aluminium for the enclosure of the new MacBook Air cut the product’s carbon footprint in half.

In 2018, Apple announced a new partnership with industrial firms Alcoa Corporation and Rio Tinto Aluminium to accelerate commercialisation of new technology that eliminates all greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process of aluminium.

Jackson noted that the public announcement of the recycled content target had “sparked innovation” internally, but that it had also spurred suppliers and other manufacturers in the market to rethink design processes, which in turn would improve the market for recycled content.

“The reason we announced the 100% recycled content goal is because we clearly can’t do this alone,” Jackson added. “We needed our suppliers to know this is something we’re striving towards.

“Others in the sector are now picking up on this because we need to make a market for these materials, and we can’t do that alone either.”

Access to recycled content will help Apple achieve its ambition to “one day stop mining the earth altogether”. In the meantime, the tech giant has launched numerous programmes aimed at restoring and protecting the natural habitats located at mines that it sources from.

Apple revealed that it sourced 1,000 ounces of gold from miners working to restore natural habitats this year, up from just 25 ounces last year. ‘Salmon Gold’ was first launched by Apple in 2017, in response to concerns that mining operations in Alaska were degrading creeks and streams to the point that Pacific salmon had been listed under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Apple will use some of this gold to manufacture electronic components but has partnered with jewellery giant Tiffany & Co. to ensure that all Salmon Gold is put to good use, and to help the project grow further.

The public announcement of the resource efficiency target was somewhat unusual for Apple, which doesn’t tend to disclose targeted ambitions publicly.

Jackson explained that the target had to be disclosed as a sign of intent to suppliers. Considering the low-carbon benefits that the circular economy is bringing Apple, Jackson was asked as to whether a public carbon target, specifically a net-zero commitment, could be revealed.

“The reasons companies make big announcements of goals in the long-term future is to convince people they’re doing the right thing,” Jackson said. “But we like to convince people by showing them and so, in general, it is very unusual or us to publicly announce a goal.

“We’re 100% renewable, we have some plans in the works that we’re not ready to talk about today. But they’ll probably take our ambitions much further.”

Matt Mace

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