When It Comes to Ad Copy, Sustainability Is Not Green, It’s Gray

What Apple’s recent campaign teaches us about the future of marketing sustainability

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Earlier this month, Apple launched its eco-themed campaign, “Mother Nature.” While the initial hype, ranging from fanboying to scrutinizing, has subsided, the implications of the campaign on how sustainability is marketed in the future are just beginning.

In what can be deemed a critical moment for corporate sustainability, prominent early initiatives can shape norms and form habits for marketers and audiences alike. That is why it is important to look deeper at this campaign from all sides—environmental, regulatory and marketing—and apply the learnings moving forward.

Though this is only one campaign, this is bigger than Apple.

The modern version of ‘made with 100% real fruit’

While Apple has made notable sustainability strides, such as using “100% recycled materials in laptop enclosures” and investing in renewable energy projects, the issue lies in the technicalities of the campaign’s sustainability claims and language, like “carbon neutrality,” which are caveated at best.

Though there was scrutiny in the press, it mostly focused on the old hat issue of Apple’s wasteful business model, centered around planned product obsolescence. America loves a good “based on a true story” narrative, regardless of how small the “true” percentage may be. So it is not surprising that most people, including marketers, bought into the premise of Apple’s campaign.

The brand executed an expertly crafted and beautifully designed assault on our perception, leaving many unaware of the subtle greenwashing. As a result, we tacitly accepted the intended narrative that read: “Thanks to our brilliance, the more stuff we make, the better off the planet will actually be. So go ahead and buy a carbon-neutral watch today.”

Persuasive marketing aside, there is a bigger reason at play here: Sustainability is not green, it is gray. It is a fledgling, highly-complicated field that is still finding its way.

Determining if a sustainability initiative has real impact or merely contributes to the plastic-straw effect, is often challenging, even for experts. Currently, the impact of corporate sustainability is brought to life in self-administered, annual reports. Apple’s campaign is de facto paraphrasing the key points of its 114-page environmental report.

But anyone who has built this type of report, or any board deck for that matter, knows that this is as much an exercise in crafting a narrative and cherry-picking the most advantageous “data” as it is in delivering facts.

So what were some gray areas in the Apple environmental report and subsequent campaign that may not have been seen by the naked eye?

Carbon neutrality is a clever marketing term

Apple aims for “carbon neutrality” in its supply chain by 2030. However, the term “carbon neutral” is a misnomer, suggesting that a company’s direct emissions can be erased by other actions elsewhere.

According to climate scientist David Ho, “There is no such thing as a carbon-neutral product because more stuff always has an impact.” Production and shipping, responsible for 78% of Apple’s emissions are energy intensive and heavily rely on fossil fuels. Until we exclusively use renewables (i.e.: solar, wind) for energy, any production will have an environmental impact.

100% Renewable electricity… with caveats

Apple has used, “100% renewable electricity for its direct operations since 2018.” But there is fine print.

The brand achieves this by investing in 1.5GW of global renewable energy projects, theoretically displacing the equivalent amount of fossil fuels. However, most Apple facilities still draw power from local grids. And in 2022, 75% of China’s and 60% of the US grid relied on fossil fuels. So in reality Apple’s renewables retroactively offset their annual use, while day-to-day electricity still leans on fossil fuels, releasing carbon.

Offset controversy

Carbon offsets seek to compensate for emissions through investing in projects like reforestation, or methane capture, elsewhere. Offsets have sparked debate with experts viewing them as a workaround for addressing direct emissions.

Even worse, recent studies suggest that offsets don’t work, pushing companies like Delta, Jet Blue and Gucci to abandon offsets. And in May, the European Parliament moved to ban carbon-neutrality marketing claims via offsets.

Hiding behind the trees

In “Mother Nature,” Apple proclaims, “We’ve planted forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere.” However, journalists, like Lisa Song from ProPublica, found that “reforestation offsets often miss pollution targets, with gains quickly reversed.”

Recently, The Guardian reported that over 90% of projects certified by Verra (who also certifies Apple’s projects) had minimal impact. Also, remarkably, this program began in 2015, driven by Apple’s paper usage concerns, a significant pivot from their 2023 “carbon removal” claim.

The path to 2030 is littered with dependencies

Apple’s emissions primarily come from manufacturing, managed by overseas suppliers. Thus to meet their targets Apple will need all 300+ of their suppliers to cooperate. While Apple’s commitment is commendable, cleaning up its entire supply chain by 2030 may prove overly optimistic given the complexity and historical issues involved.

How to read corporate emissions. The Emissions Table is located on Appendix A on Page 77.

Where does this leave us?

Apple is a global leader with immense influence. It’s crucial for the public, and for Apple, to recognize that Apple is not a sustainability company, but the world’s largest electronics manufacturer and that they are driven by profit. As Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vp of sustainability, recently stated: “Tim (Cook) has been really clear … this is not philanthropy. We’re not out just spending money so we can make this claim to make other people feel great. It has to be something that businesses in our supply chain can take on without sacrificing their ability to also make a profit.”

And, this is 100% ok. Sustainability should not be a tax; it needs to be beneficial for businesses. In fact, it already is.

The renewable energy Apple is investing in is actually cheaper than other forms of energy. Shipping goods by boat is more economical than doing it by plane. Recycling minerals can be 13x cheaper than extracting them from, well, Mother Nature. And that tree-hugging program? It’s actually an investment fund called the Restore Fund, in partnership with Goldman Sachs, and it is mandated to generate a profit.

Apple, and other large companies companies, don’t need to portray themselves as world-saving philanthropists or exaggerate their impact. It cheapens their efforts and creates a false narrative around how much more real work still needs to be done.

“Mother Nature” is actually a brilliant piece of creative—to take a drab corporate report and bring it to life with top-notch storytelling is genius. More brands in the space need to do that. If only they had toned down the self-congratulatory bravado and flexing and not used misleading terms like “carbon neutral,” they would have really hit the mark.

The environmental fine print is not open for debate

One could argue that Apple isn’t doing anything wrong, and their sustainable claims are technically legit. However, we should genuinely ask ourselves whether we really want sustainability to be based on technicalities and fine print. Is the world at risk of “burning down” (more rapidly) if we don’t change how we market sustainability? That’s open for debate.

What isn’t up for debate is this: if we fail to market sustainability with expertise and integrity, it will soon become just another gimmick adorning product packaging.