What Can Former EPA Chief Lisa Jackson Do for Apple?

Lisa-Jackson-207x300A year ago I wrote about the main reasons Apple fails time and again when it comes to CSR. One of the problems mentioned was that Apple doesn’t have strong CSR leadership. Well, I guess now we can take this point off the list, at least partially.

Apple CEO Tim Cook announced on Tuesday that Former U.S. EPA chief Lisa Jackson has been hired as VP of environmental initiatives. Cook made the announcement at the annual D: All Things D conference. According to the Washington Post, he said Jackson will be reporting directly to him and is “going to be coordinating a lot of this activity across the company.”

Jackson seems to be very excited about her new job. She wrote in an e-mail: “I’m incredibly impressed with Apple’s commitment to the environment and I’m thrilled to be joining the team.”

This is certainly a surprising move on both sides – Apple, so far, had mostly a reactive strategy when it came to its environmental and social impacts and doesn’t report to the CDP or release a comprehensive sustainability report like most other large corporations do. Jackson’s step is also uncommon among former EPA administrators, who usually don’t change their boss from the President of the United States to a CEO of a company, even if it’s called Apple.

So what does this all mean? Does Apple want become more sustainable? Will it become so with the addition of Jackson to its team? Or this is merely a PR move? Let’s try to look into these questions one by one:

Why did Apple decide to hire Lisa Jackson?
According to Cook, Jackson’s job will be to help Apple in dealing with the company’s environment impacts – specifically in its manufacturing and product practices. But there’s more to it.

Tim Worstall mentioned in Forbes one possible motive: “If any part of the permanent government that is DC decides to come after Apple, then Apple now has one of Washington’s own guarding their backs. Jackson’s job is to be the interface with DC.”

After seeing how well Cook did in Washington on the tax avoidance issue, I doubt he needs any help there. Actually, to some degree, Jackson might be a liability, especially in Congress, where she became a favored target of the Republican majority’s aversion to what it termed “job-killing regulations,” as the New York Times reported last December.

I think that, more likely, Jackson will be the interface with Apple’s main stakeholders, from NGOs to federal agencies to active shareholders. I believe Cook hopes that Apple will be more resilient to pressures from these stakeholders on environmental issues with Jackson on board.  In addition he might be also more open-minded about prioritizing social and environmental issues and hopes that Jackson can help move this agenda forward.

Is it possible that this is just a PR stunt?
I really doubt that. Before Jackson left the EPA she told USA Today that “part of the decision in deciding to go now was to give myself the space and time to think about where I can make a difference next.” I don’t believe she would have taken this job unless she felt she could really make a difference at Apple.

So is Apple going to be more sustainable?
Greener- probably. Sustainable – probably not.

If you look at the scope of the new job as mentioned by Cook, it is limited to “the company’s effects on the environment in its manufacturing and product practices.” This means we’ll probably see Apple doing a better job when it comes to toxic waste, date center efficiency, renewable energy use, removing toxics from its products and improving its recycling programs.

At the same time, it also means that Jackson won’t be responsible for the social impacts of Apple’s products in its supply chain. Also, she probably won’t be looking into the essence of the company’s business model, which is based on product cycles that become shorter and shorter and is nothing but sustainable.

In other words, we can expect Apple’s activity to be ‘less bad,’ but we probably shouldn’t expect Apple to change its design thinking or aspire sustainability in the true sense of the concept.

What we can hope Jackson to achieve?
My hope is that Jackson will help change the culture against transparency at Apple and help transform the company into an important player in the fight against climate change.

More specifically I’d like to see Apple under Jackson’s leadership start reporting to the CDP, releasing annual sustainability reports, setting up clear goals on environmental and social issues and partnering with other companies and stakeholders to help fight climate change.

Did Cook make the right decision?
Cook is a smart man so I suspect he knows that adding Jackson to his team will not just enhance the company’s resilience, but also the expectations stakeholders have. Greenpeace’s response to Cook’s announcement gives an example of this double edged sword: “Apple has made a bold move in hiring Lisa Jackson, a proven advocate with a track record of combating toxic waste and the dirty energy that causes global warming, two of Apple’s biggest challenges as it continues to grow.”

In any case, no matter what he had in mind, I think Cook made the right decision – Apple couldn’t stay reactive forever and adding people like Jackson to his team might be the way to start connecting the dots between innovation and sustainability, which is probably the only way to secure Apple’s success in the future.

[Image credt: ChesapeakeBayEO: Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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