Is Hostility to Blame for Sustainability’s Leadership Gap?

The attack on Apple to refrain from doing anything that doesn’t add directly to the bottom line shows why it’s so hard to do good.

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Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
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By now, you probably have heard about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s tart response to the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) at Apple’s February 28 annual shareholder meeting. Representatives from the D.C.-based think tank demanded that Apple disclose all of its activities around energy and sustainability, and that it refrain from doing anything that doesn’t add directly to the bottom line.

Cook responded with visible irritation, according to witnesses, stating that a return on investment (ROI) was not the primary consideration on such issues. “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.” The same thing was true for environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas that may not show an immediate profit, he said. Apple does “a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive,” Cook went on. “We want to leave the world better than we found it.”

Cook then added, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Charging that Apple is “obsessed with the theory of so-called ‘climate change,’” the NCPPR put out a blustery press release claiming that Cook told investors to “drop dead.” The situation is ripe with irony.

But it’s also clear that the NCPRR’s worldview is a distinct minority. According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, a majority of Americans would like to see some leadership and action on global warming: 83% say the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs; 65% think that business should be doing more to address it and 71% say it should be a priority for the president and Congress.

So what does it mean to be a leader in the era of climate change?

Cook was willing to admit that Apple might not be immediately profiting from sustainability, something our own data shows it can be hard to do. In our most recent

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Topics

Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
See All Articles in This Section

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Comment (1)
Ron Sherga
This is a tricky topic where most of the audience has little understanding. The biggest effects on climate from come from farming and buildings and construction. Yet, I believe we would be hard pressed to not eat or live outdoors. The complexity of the  climate issue in regards to business practices  is also very complex. Apple makes smaller devices that tend to utilize less materials and use less energy. They also create a powerful brand that's a result of a culture perception. Part of that perception is  derived from innovation,  COUNTER culture mentality and loyalty among adopters. The NCPPR is asking Apple to align with its philosophy and in doing so risks disrupting a cornerstone of Apples branding and audience attraction. I can't think of a more harmful potential to HURT the bottom line. It would be like suggesting Walmart change their motto to everyday HIGH prices.  Or Nike saying Don't just  do it.