Apple’s decision to no longer include wall chargers and earbuds in its new iPhone 12 boxes is good for business, but just how good it will be for the planet is harder to see. The move saves the company money, but some of the environmental benefits could be offset by people buying earbuds and chargers separately.
Apple made the announcement during its October 13th event. Unlike previous models, the iPhone 12 will come with only a USB-C to Lightning cable. The company said that excluding the wall charger and earbuds would lead to less mining, packaging, and planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions associated with making the products. The company also got kudos from some environmental groups for cutting back on e-waste, a growing problem that Apple contributes to with its constant stream of new gadgets. This week’s announcement is the latest move Apple has made to become a more environmentally friendly company, and it follows a big pledge it made in July to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
“They sold this as kind of an environmental friendly rule,” says Angelo Zino, a senior industry analyst with investment research firm CFRA Research. But Apple’s waste-cutting move is also a good financial move. “Clearly the bottom line has a lot to do with it.”
The transition to 5G is a big reason why Apple might be looking for cost savings by including fewer accessories with its phones, tech analysts tell The Verge. For the first time, Apple’s entire line of new phones will support 5G. That makes it more expensive to make the iPhone 12 compared to the iPhone 11 because the components that enable 5G speeds are more complex and costly.
Zino estimates that the radio frequency components alone in the new iPhone 12 are going to cost 30 to 35 percent more than they did in earlier iPhones. “Apple is going to look to cut costs in other aspects of the phone,” he says.
Deciding not to include a power block and AirPods with a new phone is one way to do that. That might only increase the company’s gross profit per phone by a little over 1 percent, says Gene Munster, a managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures. But it’s something. “I would just generally think about this as a maneuver to maintain the current profitability of the phone,” Munster says.
A company making a production choice that’s good for business and good for the planet seems like a win-win. But Apple is assuming that the people buying the new iPhone already have old headphones and chargers ready to use instead.
If people decide to buy AirPods anyway because they don’t already have earbuds, that’s a big win for Apple but not for the planet. If Apple sells roughly the same number of phones this year as it did in 2018 — about 217 million — and just 5 percent of those people decide to add AirPods to their cart, the company stands to make an additional $700 million in gross profit, according to Munster.
The problem is that buying chargers or headphones separately could mean more packaging waste and emissions from separate deliveries. Some of that might add to Apple’s carbon footprint, and some of it might get tacked on to different companies’ carbon footprints if consumers decide to buy the accessories from other vendors. That doesn’t necessarily reduce emissions overall; it just spreads the greenhouse gasses around between different companies.
“This is going to be a huge boon, at least in the short term, to accessory makers who are going to be selling USB-C chargers,” says Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst at consultancy Techsponential.
That’s because the cable that is included with the iPhone 12 isn’t compatible with the power blocks included with many previous iPhones. Consumers who don’t have a compatible charger lying around will need to purchase a USB-C wall charger or wireless charger in order to use their new phones.
There’s another reason why scrapping accessories might not result in as big of a cut in greenhouse gases as Apple predicts. The new iPhone 12 will be shipped in smaller packaging since the box will be packed with less stuff. That allows for 70 percent more boxes to be shipped on a pallet, according to the company. More boxes on each pallet should translate to fewer delivery trips and less pollution from tailpipes, according to the company. But it plays out differently in real life, says Sara Behdad, associate professor of environmental engineering sciences at the University of Florida.
Just because there’s more space on a pallet, doesn’t mean it will be filled. “Shipping to stores is based on demand,” Behdad says. How densely a pallet is filled might depend on how many phones a retailer thinks it will sell and how much storage space is available. So smaller packaging doesn’t necessarily lead to a huge drop in shipping emissions.
There are so many factors that could throw a wrench in companies’ sustainability initiatives. “It’s actually very difficult to make a specific claim about how sustainable a specific product could be,” Behdad says. “New features [that claim to make products more sustainable] bring us a lot of questions”
That uncertainty leaves room for skepticism — especially when it comes to incremental changes aimed at addressing giant problems like climate change or e-waste. “Selling the new iPhone 12 with or without headphones/airpods or a charging block included distracts us from the larger question: why Apple and other electronics companies have not taken greater responsibility for reusing and recycling their products the vast majority of which [are] still disposed in the U.S. and globally,” Scott Cassel, CEO of the nonprofit Product Stewardship Institute, said in an email to The Verge.
The company would have a bigger impact if it made its products easier to refurbish so that they don’t become “obsolete and junk after a few years,” Cassel wrote. Apple’s AirPods, for example, tend to have a shorter shelf life than traditional headphones because it’s so hard to replace the lithium-ion battery inside.
This particular announcement was one of the smaller steps that Apple has taken to up its environmental game. In July, it pledged to zero-out its carbon emissions by 2030 and debuted a new robot named “Dave” to disassemble old iPhones and recover materials that can be used again.
“Historically, I feel like they’ve really been at the forefront in terms of talking about climate change,” Zino tells The Verge. The company’s influence on industry and consumer behavior does leave it with a lot of responsibility. “There’s so much that they can still do.”