Apple, phone chargers, and the art of greenwashing

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In 2020, Apple announced during the launch of the iPhone 12 that it would no longer provide a power adapter within the packaging of its new smartphones. The company argued that removing both the power adapters and wired earphones from its packaging would significantly reduce the size of its iPhone boxes, which according to them would mean “70% more devices can fit on a shipping pallet”, and “reduce yearly carbon emissions by 2 million metric tons”.

This is not the first time Apple have set a trend in removing features they do not believe are necessary from their smartphone products. In 2016, Apple infamously removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, which at the time was a move ridiculed throughout the industry, but over time the removal of the headphone jack became the norm in the smartphone market, as wireless earphones became ever-more popular.

Fast forward six years and it seems like Apple has once again started a trend of smartphone companies removing its chargers from their packaging. Samsung, who mocked Apple on social media for removing chargers from its packaging, went on to remove the chargers from its S21 smartphone line-up themselves. Google removed the chargers from its Pixel 6 product range. It appears then that Apple’s new trend and the reasoning behind it has caught on.

Only 0.1% of global e-waste consists of power adapters

On the face of it, Apple’s decision makes sense – the company claims that there are “over 2 billion Apple power adapters out there in the world”, meaning most consumers will simply be able to use their old adapters to charger their new phones. Producing fewer chargers means reducing the number of materials being extracted from the ground, which would help reduce the amount of e-waste being produced and help achieve the company’s goals of Net Zero emissions by 2030.

But Apple’s announcement missed a crucial factor – most of the Apple chargers in the world do not work with the new iPhone 12. All new iPhones since 2020 have shipped with a USB-C to Lightning cable to plug into your power adapter, but all the Apple chargers shipped with previous iPhones only work with a USB-A to Lightning cable.

Therefore, the idea that iPhone 12 users could use their old Apple chargers seemed flawed given the change in cables, with the only options being to use a third-party charger or forking out an extra £20 on Apple’s accessories store to buy the compatible power adapter. Hence, many believe that the decision to remove the charger from the box is another attempt by Apple to increase its profits – given that over 100 million units of the iPhone 12 series have been sold, a large proportion of that consumer base undoubtedly purchased the extra charger.

Even from an environmental perspective, removing chargers from the box could arguably be counterproductive. The rise of fast and wireless chargers in the smartphone world means many consumers are looking to upgrade their old chargers – Apple customers in particular may be keen to upgrade, with previous chargers that came with old iPhones holding a charging speed of a measly 5W of power. In a world where Apple themselves are pushing for wider use of wireless chargers such as MagSafe, and where companies like Xiaomi are providing 120W chargers with their latest smartphones, many consumers feel inclined to buy new chargers separately including through third-party sites like Amazon.

The decision has led to accusations that the industry is once again investing in ‘greenwashing’ practices

But this creates a new problem – the packaging needed to ship separate chargers is often far bigger and bulkier than the packaging that would be needed to ship a charger with the original smartphone. Therefore, the environmental impact mitigated at the source simply gets transferred onto the consumer end of the product’s lifecycle because of the extra packaging that separate chargers require, suggesting that the trend Apple has started is doing more harm than good.

The decision by some smartphone companies to remove the charger from the box has led to accusations that the industry is once again investing in ‘greenwashing’ practices to give consumers the impression that smartphone companies are helping the environment. While global e-waste is becoming an ever-increasing problem, Wired reported that only 0.1% of global e-waste consists of power adapters.

What could have a better environmental impact therefore is rethinking how smartphones are manufactured themselves, such as reducing the number of rare metals required to build new smartphones and using more recycled material. Apple and other companies are moving towards a closed loop production system where all future smartphones are made from 100% recycled materials, but it could be some time yet until this system is fully functional. Smartphone companies could be targeting the wrong products by removing chargers from the box, when a focus on using recycled materials could yield a greater environmental impact.

The future of smartphone chargers remains uncertain. Apple succeeded with convincing almost all smartphone companies to remove the headphone jack on its premium products, but not all companies are convinced that removing the charger from a phone’s packaging is the best solution.

Xiaomi backtracked on its choice to remove the charger in its Mi 11 product range, and in the non-premium market virtually all companies are continuing to supply high-quality chargers with their smartphones. The proposed EU legislation to move to a universal charging standard using USB-C cables could further hurt Apple’s environmental cause should it pass, as people rush to switch to a new charging system that Android users have used for years. Overall, it seems the decision to remove power adapters from smartphone packaging will not help the environment – it creates more problems with packaging and e-waste than it solves.

Image: Thomas Kolnowski via Unsplash

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