Despite its ample inventory of successful consumer offerings, Apple’s growth is unsustainable. And no, I’m not referring to the eventual departure of CEO Steve Jobs or the challenges it faces from its competitors. I’m referencing its corporate culture, one which it shares with many other firms. It builds great products every few months, markets them effectively, and sells them in great numbers. Endless, frequent, addictive updates of laptops, tablet PCs, cell phones, portable music players: you name it, they sell it, we trash it.
According to the EPA, each year Americans dispose of nearly 200 million computers, televisions, and portable devices. Less than 10% of our mobile devices are recycled, leaving tons of gold, copper, silver, iridium and other materials to go to waste. This is beginning to impose steep costs. Stagnant supply growth in the copper market, for example, has contributed to its more than quadrupling in price since 2003. As Jeremy Grantham, the founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO, puts it, metals “are entropy at work.” As we continue to senselessly discard our resources, prices “will slowly increase forever,” imposing tight ceilings on growth.
The problem is far from limited to electronics manufacturers. The same argument can be made for petroleum outfits who pedal a finite supply of fuel, coal companies whose product releases unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and packagers who overwrap products with materials that are discarded immediately after purchase.
The common condition is that many businesses operate under the myth that they have access to unlimited resources, aren’t connected to nature, and have no role with respect to sustainability overall. Annie Leonard’s short film The Story of Stuff does an excellent job illustrating this fact through a dissection of the contemporary industrial supply chain.
Disrupting the current system is not impossible, but it does require a new vision of corporate responsibility. This is likely not a trivial task. Changing business as usual requires a willingness to modify all aspects of business operations.
This involves a full paradigm shift which goes beyond even the exemplary goal of reaching a carbon-neutral society. The transition will require a careful study of regenerative systems as exemplified by aspects of the so-called “circular economy,” in which products are not simply ends in and of themselves, but reusable catalysts for growth. Conventional recycling of papers, plactics, glass, etc. and limits on overfishing are representative cases, but other less conventional examples exist. Appliance Recycling Centers of America for example, a Minneapolis-based appliance disposal company financed by GE, has constructed a multi-million dollar machine capable of dismantling and separating old refrigerators destined for the landfill into piles of metal, plastic, and foam which can then be resold.
Some companies are taking positive steps towards sustainability when the moves make financial sense. Walmart adopted energy efficiency targets in 2005 and now claims to be saving over $200m a year on transport fuel alone. Mining interests are using solar panels to avoid the infrastructure costs of building conventional power lines to remote locations. Ikea is getting involved as well as – get this – aWales coal museum. Increased likelihood of droughts and other forms of resource scarcity are viewed by many business leaders to be a growing threat.
These examples notwithstanding, sustainable practices are often ignored when they fail to benefit a company’s bottom line, especially in cases where executives are more highly rewarded for a company’s short term profits than its long term health. Unfortunately, the general public often suffers the consequences. Natural gas providers still operate with relative immunity despite that their fracking process releases toxins into waterways. Power companies which emit carbon dioxide contribute to ocean acidification, a cost they do not bear directly but which will permanently disrupt aquatic ecosystems and food chains.
Absent financial incentives or government regulations, firms are unlikely to address sustainability on their own unless prompted by their customers and shareholders. Fortunately, this barrier is surmountable. Approximately 2 billion people worldwide are engaged in some form of social media. While global prices for raw materials are increasing, the costs of communication and social networking are decreasing. Our collective ability to affect change is gigantic.
Take, for example, the campaign launched by Greenpeace against the food giant Nestle out of concern that the company was purchasing palm oil, an ingredient in many of its products, from firms responsible for the unsustainable destruction of tropical rain forests in Indonesia and elsewhere. A Greenpeace video showing a baby orangutan being pulled from his mother’s arms into trashing equipment went viral. Protesters bombarded an online Kit Kat page prompting Nestle to issue promises to abandon purchases from firms engaging in those activities.
Ultimately, in a smaller and connected world, the power to bend the corporate curve towards sustainability lies with all of us. Now, if only someone can build an app for that.