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Apple Is Helping Chinese Factories Use Clean Energy, So Your Phone Could Be Carbon Neutral

Apple is taking a big step towards a cleaner supply chain by investing in renewable energy where it makes its phones.

Apple Is Helping Chinese Factories Use Clean Energy, So Your Phone Could Be Carbon Neutral

Your future iPhone may be carbon neutral–at least until it gets on a ship for delivery and you’re charging it at home. In a massive new push for cleaner power, Apple is working with suppliers like Foxconn to install two gigawatts of renewable energy in China, along with another 200 megawatts the tech giant will build itself.

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“Apple’s the first that we’ve seen do this on a large scale,” says Tom Dowdall, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace who focuses on electronics.

The company also recently finished construction on another set of solar power projects that will fully offset all the power used in their Chinese corporate offices and their 24 retail stores in the country. Apple’s U.S. operations already run on renewable energy.

But it’s the step to push suppliers to change that’s something new. “In the past, a lot of companies have said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing with renewable energy in Europe, and renewable energy in the U.S., but it’s really difficult in China–we don’t own the manufacturing,'” says Dowdall.

Now, as stresses grow on the grid in China, the government limits pollution, and the cost of renewable energy keeps falling, switching to a new power supply is becoming more of an obvious choice.

By far, the biggest part of the carbon footprint of an iPhone happens during production. So while running a retail store on solar power is great, it doesn’t have much of an effect on the total impact of electronics. Helping suppliers will.

Apple will build 200 megawatts of solar projects throughout China to begin to offset some of the energy it uses in manufacturing. But then they’ll also help manufacturers buy new clean energy and improve efficiency. Foxconn, Apple’s largest supplier, will buy 400 megawatts of solar by 2018–the same amount their Zhengzhou factory uses to make iPhones.

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Apple wouldn’t share the details of how the deal with Foxconn works. But making investments in suppliers isn’t new–this time the focus happens to be renewable energy. “It follows in this long path of making reasonable investments in supplier resilience for long term competitiveness,” says Eric Olson, who leads global advisory services for BSR, a nonprofit consultancy that works on sustainability in business. “And of course there’s a halo effect.”

In the past, food companies have invested in the water infrastructure of suppliers. Others, like HP, are also helping suppliers dramatically improve energy efficiency. Renewable energy might be the logical next step.

“I would think any company with a high profile brand, and a large manufacturing supplier footprint, is going to be inspired by this to follow suit,” says Olson.

And the fact that Apple’s already done it will make it easier for others to follow. “Foxconn is also a supplier to many other players in the industry, not just Apple,” says Dowdall. “The work Apple is doing with its suppliers should really enable other companies to use some of those same suppliers to set up the same programs.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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