As Apple invests in tech startups and new data centers, now it’s also spending money on trees. The tech giant just helped buy 36,000 acres of forest in Maine and North Carolina through a partnership with the nonprofit The Conservation Fund.
Why invest in trees? The company uses a vast amount of paper in packaging, and wanted to find a long-term sustainable source for it–and a way to help protect those resources. Though Apple wouldn’t disclose the exact amount of paper they use, Lisa Jackson, the company’s VP of environmental initiatives, writes that the amount the two forests can produce is only equal to half of the virgin fiber used to package the iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, and Apple TV last year.
The company didn’t invest in the forest just to harvest trees for their own needs. Instead, in a unique model, Apple is helping to save large tracts of forest that are at risk of being parceled up and sold to developers.
Around 15 years ago, as the market for paper pulp went global, large U.S. forest companies started to sell vast swaths of land. “All told, roughly 90 million acres of land sold in a very short time,” says Lawrence Selzer, CEO and president at The Conservation Fund. “It was the largest sale of private lands in the history of the United States.”
Some of that land went directly to developers, but the majority was sold to short-term investors who are now starting to sell it off. “Every time these lands are sold, they’re subdivided,” says Selzer. “That fragmentation accelerates the loss of ecological value, forest economic value, and dramatically accelerates the conversion to non-forest uses like development. So this situation represents the greatest land conservation challenge in the U.S. today.”
Apple put up money for The Conservation Fund to buy two massive chunks of working forest. Now, the nonprofit will set up conservation easements in place to ensure that the land will be managed sustainably in perpetuity, with local government or a nonprofit as a watchdog, and never subdivided. Later, the nonprofit will resell the land–knowing that it’s protected forever–and then use the profits to invest in a new large forest to repeat the process.
“What Apple’s doing is essentially investing in the forest to start this whole chain,” says Selzer.
While Apple could have simply bought more paper from other sustainably managed forests, they wanted to have a larger impact. “There are plenty of sustainably managed forests,” says Selzer. “But the biggest threat in terms of land conservation that we face in this country in the loss of these intact forests. So this was a way for Apple not only to address their virgin fiber needs, but to do something extremely positive about land conservation. It’s about making sure in the future there are forests to produce this fiber.”
The forests will be managed by local companies that sell to a variety of customers, so Apple alone won’t benefit. It’s part of the company’s bigger goals to help restore the environment, as Jackson told BuzzFeed:
If we take the approach of just buying sustainably sourced paper, we’re not making the world a better place—we’re zeroing out. Apple has been really clear that we want to leave the world better than we found it; that’s one of our values.
The Conservation Fund hopes that other corporations will be inspired to follow Apple’s lead.
“The forests we’re losing in this country are the last, greatest forests that we have, and once they’re lost, you can’t put them back together,” says Selzer. “So we have a window of opportunity and we hope others will step up.”