How Tim Cook brought corporate social responsibility to Apple

10 March 2016

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

When Steve Jobs led Apple, it wasn’t as though the company was socially irresponsible. It was that every single thing was seen through the lens of the products. Yes, Apple cared about its environmental impact, and it reported on this on a product level. For some people, who wanted to see an overarching corporate social responsibility report, it didn’t fit the template of what ‘best practice’ was supposed to look like.

But of course Jobs was not interested in what other people thought he should be doing. He was solely interested in what he thought genuinely worked to make the most amazing products in the world. It was entirely in keeping with this vision that those products should be careful of their environmental performance. But anything that didn’t fit the vision was quite simply out of view. It is the single-minded focus that is the stuff of genius, after all.

Nobody quite knew what to expect when the mantle passed, and Tim Cook took over. The analysts were more focused on whether he would be able to deliver the vision and the Next Big Thing innovation that Jobs had done. The pressure was on for him to show that he could be Steve Jobs Mark 2.

Apple added new levels of transparency that would have been anathema to Jobs

Sensibly, he passed on that invitation. Over his first couple of years, he began to emerge very much as his own man – someone whose perspective was shaped by both his predecessor but also his own focus through the years on operational excellence. Cook was the man who had helped make Apple profitable by making the operational arm generally efficient. His contribution to Apple under Jobs could easily be underestimated, because under Jobs just about everyone’s contribution – with the exception of Jonny Ive on the product design side – was underestimated.

But it quickly became evident that he was more open and engaged when it came to a broader focus on social responsibility. The company has made major investments in renewable energy. As of 2014, 100% of Apple operations in the US and 87% of global operations are powered by renewable energy.

Products have remained a big part of the focus. A lot of effort has gone into reducing the energy consumption of Apple’s devices in use. For instance, its Mac Mini computer was launched as the world’s most energy-efficient desktop computer, exceeding ENERGY STAR guidelines.

Cook made a substantial statement by hiring Lisa Jackson after she stepped down as the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency. This was no corporate journeyman who would keep things ticking along under the surface – the aim was to make sustainability an important part of Apple’s journey, and to do so with someone who was comfortable dealing with Washington.

Not everybody has been so pleased with Apple’s enhanced focus on environmental performance. At one point, Justin Danhof from the National Center for Public Policy Research was critical of the company for advancing environmental policies that weren’t necessarily good for business and said so during a live Q&A. Tim Cook slapped him down, reportedly saying “we do a lot of things for reasons besides the profit motive.” He recommended that anyone who had a problem with that should feel free to get out of the stock.

Of course, the area where Apple has been in trouble the most over recent years has been in questions over the working conditions in its supply chain. Over the years, occasional stories have emerged of difficult working conditions – most specifically attached to major supplier Foxconn with a spate of worker suicides catching popular attention, along with accidents and other issues.

Tim Cook visiting a supplier

Apple’s code of conduct for suppliers, which is highly regarded, and its supplier responsibility reports, predated Cook’s tenure. When asked about it, Steve Jobs suggested that the company was very focused on the problems, even while pointing out that the number of suicides amongst the 400,000 Foxconn workforce was a lower percentage of the whole than the US national average.

But the work has become higher profile under Cook. Apple showed that it would be more prepared to play with others when it joined the Fair Labor Association. Higher numbers of supplier audits were carried out, and Apple added new levels of transparency that would have been anathema to Jobs, including listing the company’s suppliers and giving frank reports of problems that had been found. 

Such changes have led to a significant shift in how campaign groups view Apple, with it becoming accepted by groups such as Greenpeace as a leader in its industry on a number of key areas.

For the general public, the perception has also shifted and that has come down to one additional phenomenon. Unlike Jobs, who would avoid public statements on anything other than products if he could, Tim Cook has made several high profile interventions on the public stage.

One of these came when he wrote a high profile op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2013 stating Apple’s support for workplace equality, and urging Congress to support the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. In it, he pointed out that Apple currently went beyond legal requirements in the US because it prohibited discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees.

Lisa Jackson
Lisa Jackson, Vice President, Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives

This was altogether a different Apple. It was an Apple that was now so confident in its own processes and practices that it would use its experience to urge public policy to follow. It was the first time in the public arena where the company was very much on the front foot. 

Most recently, of course, Apple has been in the headlines an even higher profile stand – resisting demands from the FBI that it should create backdoors in its own encrypted software. Highly controversially, Cook has been steadfast in his contention that this would lead to a ‘surveillance society.’ Lots of people support the company’s stance, and lots of others oppose it. But everyone has now gotten the memo. Apple is a company that has values. Love them or loathe them. It’s not part of Apple’s marketing. That is still all about the products.

It’s worth noting as well that this hasn’t been done in the way that big charismatic characters like Richard Branson or Howard Schulz would do it. Cook has not been the showman. It has been a small number of stands – expressed with an adult seriousness of intent.

The end result is nevertheless that there is now more to Apple than just the products, centre-stage though they remain. Tim Cook is delivering good financial results for Apple whilst nevertheless insisting that it’s not all about the bottom line.

Which for a company the size and symbolic importance of Apple, is the boldest statement you can make.