Apple’s Earth Day Campaign is a Toxic Contradiction

Snow-capped peaks in the Colorado Rockies, the burning gaze of an African elephant, and a hippo sinking beneath murky waters. What do all these scenes have in common? Not just that they’re all threatened by climate change – but Earth shot on iPhone, apparently.

So what better way to celebrate Earth Day than a short film captured exclusively on the iPhone XS? Scored appropriately to Megadeth‘s Last Rites, the film takes us on a sweeping journey of the nonhuman world that reaches a dizzying crescendo of exploding volcanoes and furiously striking snakes.

Entitled ‘Don’t Mess with Mother’, the video is an obvious warning that if we play with nonhuman fire, we’re going to get burnt. But if we press pause on the circling tiger sharks and stampeding wild horses, what makes these false images of nature-as-pristine possible are deadly realities of a polar opposite truth.

Apple’s bid to manipulate Earth Day as a move to shift their poorly-selling iPhone XS is insidious corporate greenwashing of the worst kind. Their feigning allegiance to nonhuman nature is about as honest as a factory farm saying their cows don’t suffer, before driving a bolt through their heads. In an era of mass extinction, the question devotees should be asking from the video isn’t where’s my nearest Apple store, but how much does Apple mess with the Mother themselves?

Pumping out millions of smartphones a year – despite there being enough in existence to arm the world – Apple release product after product in pursuit of higher profits. Although they argue that new iPhones are built to last, the pressure to upgrade is high – with incentives such as the iPhone upgrade program and the dubious slowing down of older models through software.

According to a scientific report by researchers at McMaster University, the ‘useful life’ of a smartphone is around 2 years, spelling trouble for an already-suffering planet – as the majority of harmful emissions (74%) comes from manufacturing, not personal use.

Although people are increasingly hanging onto their old smartphones, Apple have countered this loss by creating handsets such as the XS that offer expanded features at a premium price. However, the emissions from Apple’s newest devices are significantly higher – with the superior XS Max model at a staggering 106 kg of CO2. Compared to 63 kg for the iPhone 7, or 82 kg for the iPhone 8 Plus, this is a huge leap up into the choking fumes. As carbon emissions from smartphones are on the rise, such increases do little to mitigate this devastating contribution to climate change.

And if a user does decide to upgrade, it’s likely they’ll toss their previous device away, adding to an unmanageable electronic-waste crisis. Whilst Apple pat themselves on the back for their recycling initiatives, 80% of e-waste goes straight to landfill – causing dangerous fallouts for the dumping grounds and their local inhabitants. Indeed, 70% of landfill toxic waste is from e-waste, despite only making up 2% of total mass.

To compound this, the majority of e-waste can’t even be recycled. That which is recycled is often shipped abroad, where it is processed at the price of polluting water supplies, ruining air quality, and poisoning soils. Apple’s recent report highlights that they have recycled 48,000 tonnes of e-waste, but this is a drop in the ocean for the global 50 million tonnes annually. Equally, their 7.8 million phones refurbished pales in insignificance to the 66 million shipped new in Q1 2019.

But the answer isn’t recycling, which should be viewed more as a last resort. Reuse through repair is the way to cling onto our tech without contributing heavily to the above – but Apple are also fighting to prevent this. According to Greenpeace, Apple have led the selfish charge in blocking ‘Right to Repair‘ legislation, which forces manufacturers to ensure products are easily repairable outside of in-house professionals. They have also opposed official green design criteria, making their products easier to repair, reuse, and have a longer usage life overall.

Such incentives push users to purchase new products, meaning the demand for precious earth metals continues. But as Brian Merchant reports, these metals hold a heavy ecological burden around their necks. Not only are the conditions for workers brutal and unforgiving, but by-products from mining in places like northern China are so ubiquitous that it has transformed the landscape into one murky, noxious mass – with three times the amount of normal radiation.

Similarly, cobalt mining used for lithium batteries in the Congo region has been mired in accusations of child labour, and contaminates rivers and drinking water whilst spreading radioactivity and harmful dusts. A lithium mine in Tibet also saw ‘masses of dead fish‘ from a toxic leak, and in South America’s ‘Lithium Triangle‘, streams are contaminated affecting crops, livestock and local species. Using masses of water, the mining has the potential to affect native wildlife (such as three out of six global flamingo species) through shortages.

So in the harsh light of ecological day, it is difficult to view Apple’s new ad as no more than a cheap marketing trick. By draping their smartphone in a cloak of rare species and stunning vistas, Apple have attempted to paint their own bloody footprint green. Although greenwash ads are abundant, to do so on Earth Day as such a prominent global polluter is a knife in the back (and front) of those suffering in Apple’s environmental aftershock. So if Apple want’s people to get clean and not mess with the Mother – they should start by washing their dirty hands first.

The Millennial Ecologist

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