Apple CEO Tim Cook on creating a clean energy future

In Brown County, Texas – flat, dry, near the geographical center of the state – Apple has invested in a joint venture to power 100,000 homes with clean energy. This four-mile-long stretch of solar panels – nearly a million of them – will look to some like a bold step towards a clean-energy future, and to others like marketing disguised as social conscience, what cynics would call “virtue signaling.”

“I don’t do virtue signaling, at all,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “I don’t believe in it. We want to do hard work.”

What Cook means by hard work is making sure environmental choices make business sense: “I want to see that it pencils out, because I want other people to copy it. And I know they’re not going to copy a decision that’s not a good economic decision.”

Apple has similar investments towards its clean energy goals, from Oregon to California, in China and Singapore. Cook wants to match every bit of carbon released by Apple products with clean energy and carbon capture (what’s called “carbon neutral”), from mining, manufacturing, shipping, even recycling. He has pledged to get there in just seven years, and hopes Apple’s lead will inspire others to follow.

“It can be done,” he said. “And it can be done in a way that others can replicate, which is very important for us. We want to be the ripple in the pond. We want people to look at this and say, ‘I can do that, too,’ or, ‘I can do half of that.’ We want people to look at this and rip it off.”

This past week Apple announced its first totally carbon-neutral product, its new Apple watch. The company sold about 50 million watches last year, compared to more than 200 million iphones. A carbon-neutral iPhone is the company’s holy grail, and according to Kristina Raspe, who manages Apple projects like the Texas solar panel farm, getting to carbon neutral includes Apple’s customers as well. “Right now we’re focused across the company, and my department in particular, on ensuring every device that our customers own and operate, the electricity they use to charge it, is offset by renewable energy,” she said.

Cook added, “This is all about putting one watt in the system for every watt that our customers use to power our devices.”

Dickerson asked, “Have you had to become an energy engineer in this process?”

“I don’t know that I would give myself that kind of certification!” Cook replied. “But I certainly understand a lot more than I used to.”

Cook was appointed Apple CEO by founder Steve Jobs in 2011, just months before Jobs lost his battle with cancer. Since then, Apple has become the most valuable company on the planet, worth nearly $3 trillion – nine times its value back when Cook became the boss.

In that time, has Cook become more bold, or more cautious? “I came into the CEO role at a time that I was, along with the company, in deep despair over Steve’s health,” he said. “And so, that was a very difficult time to get over personally. And over time, you gain more confidence. And you have a feel for things. You know it when you see it, and you take more risk.”

One big risk Cook has taken is entering the virtual reality competition where other companies have faltered. Its Apple Vision Pro is scheduled for release in early 2024. But there have been some reports that suppliers are having trouble keeping up with the ambition of the project.

According to Cook, the release is still on track. “I’m using it on a regular basis,” he offered.

How? “I watched the entire third season of ‘Ted Lasso’ on the Vision Pro.”

Dickerson asked, “Has it been more complicated? Are the puzzles that you faced with creating it the same kinds you would face with the iPhone?”

“No, it’s more complex, and so it requires innovation in not only the development, but also in the manufacturing,” he said.

Success has also emboldened Cook to speak out on civil and voting rights issues, especially LGBTQ equality. In Apple’s Austin, Texas campus, the staff’s diversity was clear to see. During a visit Cook even took a sales call, with a customer who wanted to upgrade their iPhone.

 

“You said, ‘I don’t think of myself as a celebrity,'” said Dickerson. “But, you are.”

“I’m just a fairly ordinary person,” he said, “and people love the company. And so, they express that love with me a lot.”

This may be a welcoming place for Apple’s 10,000 Austin employees, but while Texas promotes its business-friendly climate, the state has pursued strong anti-abortion and anti-trans and -gay legislation.

Dickerson said, “When we last talked, you said, ‘I believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, and that all roads lead to equality.’ How should people think about your commitment to equality and the politics of Texas, which would seem to be clashing with that?”

Cook replied, “There will always be cases, John, where we’re either selling or operating in a place where we have a difference of opinion on something. But I’m telling you from our heart, we believe in treating everyone with dignity and respect. And that’s how we show up as a company. We believe in being a part of the community, and trying to advocate for change, rather than pulling the moat up and going away.”

That worldview won Cook the Anti-Defamation League’s “Courage Against Hate Award” in 2018. Today, the ADL has accused tech mogul Elon Musk of promoting antisemitism on his platform X (formerly known as Twitter), a charge Musk denies.

When asked if Apple should continue to advertise on Twitter, Cook replied, “It’s something that we ask ourselves. Generally, my view is Twitter’s an important property. I like the concept that it’s there for discourse and there as a town square. There’s also some things about it I don’t like!”

“There’s discourse, and then there’s antisemitism,” said Dickerson.

“Yeah, which is abhorrent. Just point blank, there is no place for it.”

“So, is this something you’re constantly evaluating?”

“It’s something we constantly ask ourselves,” Cook said.

When we last talked to Cook, it was by remote in the thick of the pandemic. Like every big company in America, Apple is at a crossroads with how to return to the office.

“What we did was, we admitted we don’t know what the best approach is,” Cook said. “And so, what we decided to do was run a pilot, where people would come into the office three days a week. We deal with user experience, and this requires collaboration. And so, we knew it had to have a fair amount of in-person work. And we’re still in the pilot today.”

“During the pandemic, a lot of people had uncertainty about what gives them meaning in life, and they reevaluated their work choices,” Dickerson said. “And that’s part of what this come-back-to-work is about. It’s balancing what gives you meaning. And work may not do that. What gives you meaning in the work you do?”

“Our work is meant to improve other people’s lives,” Cook replied. “What really turns us on and gets us excited is seeing what people do with our products, where people are doing things and we’re empowering them to do it through our products. And as long as, you know, we get that energy, it’s a virtuous cycle. We want to do more. We want to release the next product and the next product.”

A renewable energy resource? “There you go!” Cook laughed.


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