Apple is partnering with an environmental nonprofit to purchase roughly 36,000 acres of private forestland, which will be sustainably harvested and used in Apple's packaging.
The land — two tracts in Maine and North Carolina that, combined, are roughly two and a half times the size of Manhattan — will be managed by The Conservation Fund. This land is part of an estimated 45 million acres of private forest in the U.S. that are in danger of being lost to development.
"Apple wanted to work with an organization that had the ability to acquire and manage these forests, and we're thrilled about this partnership," Larry Selzer, The Conservation Fund's president, told BuzzFeed News. "Apple is doing something unprecedented here."
Though Apple will harvest pulp from these forests, other companies will also be able to buy fiber from them as well. Selzer's organization will manage the forests under the "working forest" model, in which trees are harvested with what Daniel Brindis, a senior Forests Campaigner with Greenpeace, described to BuzzFeed News as "an eye toward the long-term economic well-being of the forest."
Brindis said that, generally speaking, working forests are "an improvement over clear-cutting — but that doesn't mean they're a panacea."
"There are a lot of elements about what makes forest use responsible," he continued, and simply purchasing forestland doesn't necessarily mean a company (or in this case, a nonprofit) will manage it correctly.
Even so, Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president of environmental initiatives and former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told BuzzFeed News that the company managing its own supply chain — rather than buying pulp from outside vendors — represents a massive step forward.
"Imagine if every time you opened a package from a company you knew that it came from a working forest. And imagine if companies took seriously their paper chain and made sure that was renewable, just like energy. And imagine if they didn't just buy renewable paper, but took the step of ensuring that they would stay working forests forever."
Apple declined to say how much paper it uses in its packaging, but the company does sell hundreds of millions of iOS devices a year, each of which comes in a paper package that's composed of about one-third nonrecycled fiber. According to Jackson, the paper produced by these two forests is equivalent to nearly half the virgin — that is, nonrecycled — fiber that went into Phone, iPad, iPod, Mac and Apple TV packaging last year. "Where we want to get, of course, is 100 percent," said Jackson.
"We feel a deep responsibility to take real action and make sure we're addressing our own footprint, " Jackson said. "And 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."
Indeed, this move comes at a moment at which Apple appears to be considering more deeply than ever before its social impact. Just last month, CEO Tim Cook penned an op-ed in the Washington Post decrying Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act; as BuzzFeed's John Paczkowski noted at the time, "Cook's call for social progress is now Apple's as well."
And Apple has been focused on environmental issues in particular for years. The company's US facilities — stores, offices, data centers, you name it — are powered completely by renewable energy; Apple has also cut down on its use of conflict minerals and recently announced that it was building an $848 million solar farm in California. Just four years after ranking Apple dead last in a roundup of internet companies' carbon footprints, Greenpeace argued in February that "other Fortune 500 CEOs would be well served to make a study of Tim Cook."
Jackson came to Apple in 2013 after serving as the director of the EPA under the Obama administration, and she spoke highly of Apple's commitment to her and the initiatives she oversees. "I definitely feel like this company is stepping up to the plate and swinging for the fences in terms of not just being responsible, but using our voice," Jackson said.
In her view, Apple — with its massive market share, international visibility, and ability to set trends of all kinds — is particularly well-suited to chart a course for other companies considering their impact on the paper supply chain.
"We believe that we have a responsibility to lead in this area," said Jackson. "Tim has said over and over that there are certain places where we can lead. And if other companies take this approach, that's great."
"There are some ideas," Jackson added, "that we don't mind people copying."
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Ellen Cushing is an articles editor for BuzzFeed News' tech section and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Ellen Cushing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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