You may have heard about the latest swirl of shareholder discontent at Apple. It’s not about earnings – it’s about the board’s reluctance to create a sustainability committee and to publish an annual sustainability report. Again. This also happened last year.
Here’s a little background: Al Gore’s on the board. So is Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon. So is Arthur Levinson, leader of biotech company Genentech. And so is Millard Drexler, CEO of J. Crew.
In the last three years, more than 2,700 companies have produced corporate sustainability reports, including Apple competitors Dell, and HP. Apple shares its environmental impact on a regular basis on its web site, but doesn’t publish a singular, comprehensive report.
According to the Board’s proxy statement, “The web data provides the most comprehensive accounting of any electronics company’s carbon footprint.” And indeed, the site examines life cycle assessment, product usage impact, product environmental reports and company environmental updates. The Product Environmental Reports take it a step deeper – revealing greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, material efficiency, use of restricted substances and recycling.
The shareholder’s request states, “Apple, however, lags behind global industry peers on sustainability reporting. It has released some product specific information on greenhouse gas emissions but its usefulness is limited as nearly all other companies use aggregate emission estimates. Apple has not made public greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments.”
The company has been named Greenpeace’s number one environmental computer company. It’s identified its carbon footprint to be 10.2 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents. It’s eliminated mercury, PVC, arsenic and brominated flame retardants from its manufacturing process. Its batteries last longer than previous ones. In short, Apple’s got a proven track record of sustainable actions.
So why not just create a report? What’s the big deal? And will the Board’s reluctance to do so impact consumer perceptions of the well-loved brand?
Apple’s Board says it’s already providing timely, accurate, thorough information about its sustainability initiatives. But Apple’s shareholders want more. Here’s a sampling of comments:
“Since when does transparency have to come wrapped in a report? No one reads those things.”
“I’m more concerned about companies that do create environmental reports but obviously aren’t making the actual decisions and commitments to become more sustainable. They score higher for writing a report than for actually changing their behavior.”
“Apple’s proving they’re doing it by walking the walk.”
“I was considering switching from a PC to an Apple, but now I’m reconsidering. I’m not saying I won’t do it, but it’s a decision factor for me.”
Apple’s cult-like following will likely not abandon the brand as a result of this latest controversy. But that’s because the company is doing a pretty good job of being transparent about its environmental impact. Is Apple perfect? Certainly not. Could it do better? Sure.
For marketers, here are a few lessons to be learned:
– Shareholders are asking for more transparency around sustainability. Wall Street, too.
– Publishing a sustainability report isn’t going to buy your company any points unless there’s already a deep commitment to making change. Transparency isn’t only found in a report. It’s found in actions, in shared information, and in results.
How would you vote if you were on Apple’s board? We’d love to hear your thoughts.