By Dan Kempner, Managing Editor, Valutus Sustainability R.O.I.
Speeding along the pre-dawn Mass Pike en route to Logan Airport, my brother-in-law stretched languorously in the passenger seat, laughed and said, “how about those losers who spent all day at the Apple store for the new iPhone launch. Who would use a vacation day just for that?”
I knew the answer and so did he: I would.
I’d just devoted portions of three vacation days to getting one of the 75-million iPhones apple had prepared for this launch, so friends back home in Vietnam could have the newest, hottest tech before anyone else. And I’d missed the Climate Strike to do it.
I’d come to the U.S. a month before for a wedding and to see friends and family but, when word came down from on high – my wife in Ho Chi Minh City – that I had to drive an hour to a certain mall to buy a phone, computer and watch, I rumbled off to New Hampshire.
It was a hot day and, at a food-court counter that made blended smoothies, I ordered something fruity and handed them the travel cup I’d brought with me for the purpose. As usual, I felt a little smug that I’d remembered it.
The youngster serving me was nonplussed and stuttered for a moment before turning to her supervisor and holding out my cup questioningly. “No,” the supe said, with a sympathetic tone, “company policy. We can’t use your cup.
“But,” I frothed inanely, “but…on the very day of the student climate strike?!” Okay, I’m not proud of it but, yes, I said that. Eager to soothe me the first clerk said helpfully, “I can’t use your cup, Sir, but I can use one of ours and pour it into yours…would that work?”
Needless to say, that did not work and, still thirsty, I headed through the mall to get my stuff. But something was clearly wrong as I approached the Apple store: there was a mob in the neighborhood. Was this part of the climate strike?
In fact, these weren’t kids milling around. Instead, in lines six-shops long on either side of the store entrance, were several hundred Gen-Xers and Boomers. They weren’t holding protest signs, but their own current, and perfectly viable, iPhones: texting, chatting, photographing, gaming, working, videoing, and posting, all while waiting breathlessly for their new iPhone 11, which, I learned, had just come out that day.
I, too, was one of those middle-aged posters, and after finding my place in line I posted this:
A pleasant lady in the group on the right said, “no, no, this line is only for people with an appointment between noon and twelve-thirty.” Appointment?
I checked and indeed, in order to pay well over a thousand dollars for one of their new products, an appointment to stand in line was needed. Yet making an appointment turned out to be superfluous anyway: the darned things were already sold out across the East Coast.
I finally got a slot to pick up an Apple Watch between two and two-thirty, which gave me plenty of time to ponder the greenomics of this absurd phenomenon.
As GetOrchard.com reports, “On one hand, Apple arguably created the (annual upgrade) cycle by releasing a new iPhone every year. Major design changes are saved for every second year, making devices look obsolete, even if they still work perfectly.” In other words, their goal is to get us to upgrade annually. Then our phone plan providers — nicely aligned with the manufacturers — also try to hustle an upgrade every other year when our contracts are up.
Apple’s own environmental report documents many steps they have taken to lighten their overall corporate impact, but they also list an iPhone’s carbon phone-print as averaging about 79 kilos of CO2 over the device’s lifetime and about 80% of that — 63 kg CO2 — is in the manufacture. In other words, even if the buyer never uses it before replacing it with a new phone, that 63 kg of carbon dioxide – and a host of other greenhouse gases — is already baked in.
Let’s see, 79 kilos per phone, times 75 million initial units, carry the one and…hmm. By my count that comes to just under 6 Billion kilograms of CO2 in the first week of this launch alone. But wait! They’ve actually ordered around 180-million units for the sales year, which ups our calculations some to, uh, let’s see, 79 kilos times 180 million… I put it at 14.2 Billion kilograms or, more succinctly, 14.2 Million metric tonnes of carbon.
Consider that the total carbon emissions of greater Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2015 was 14.7 million tonnes and it’s clear that almost as much carbon will be released by launching the iPhone 11 this year as a major metropolitan area releases in the same period. This, of course, only refers to the iPhone and not to any of the millions of units of the other products sold in the same stores.
What does it mean when millions are standing in solidarity for the climate on the same day millions more are standing in line to buy the newest phone launch?
And what does it mean when that launch represents billions of tons of carbon added to the atmosphere?
Now there’s no need just to pick on Apple. The other manufacturers are in the same boat, and so are we all. It took me, and millions of others, an hour to get to the mall in a personal automobile — not so carbon friendly. Besides, this is how we communicate, work, date, memorialize, innovate, play and view. I have at least ten weekly meetings on my laptop that I would not be able to attend effectively otherwise.
I recently founded an online community for a brick-and-mortar organization and our internet beachhead is growing far, far faster than the earthbound wing. The commute? From bedroom to living room. That’s a lot of gas saved.
It is possible — and I did not find any direct data on this — that all these phones, tablets and laptops, have reduced the number of home TV sets — I don’t feel a need for one, for example — boomboxes, radios, satellite dishes, movie cameras and projectors, trips to the theater, visits to the photo developer and many, many other things we all used to do. Could that be enough to offset this insane, carbon-mad consumer frenzy?
Meanwhile the line had been thinning and it was my turn. I was shuttled between blue-shirted staffers, and the third of these and I waited about fifteen minutes for my watch to emerge from the holy-of-holies, the mysterious Apple back room.
I took the opportunity to ask my young companion, “So…what’s so great about this new iPhone anyhow?” She looked upward for a moment, and said with a little shrug, “Not much, I guess.”
I followed up doggedly though, with, “What about this watch, what does that do?”
“Well,” she said, “it works with the iPhone to count your steps, keep track of stuff, you can make calls with it…stuff like that.”
“So, you’re saying I need an iPhone in order to use the watch?”
“Uh huh,” she said blithely.
I ran out — still thirsty — and drove to the nearest climate strike to show my support. But it was too late: the kids had gone, I knew not where. I already knew where their parents were.
 Vancouver is the 31st largest city in North America, with a population of 2.5 million.
Thanks for reading and, of course, your comments are very welcome. – DK