How Hard Will Lisa Jackson Pressure Apple's Suppliers on the Environment?

The former EPA chief faces new challenges.

Last night, Apple CEO Tim Cook let slip that his company has created a new executive position to oversee environmental issues. That post, Cook added, will be filled by Lisa Jackson, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson ran EPA for four years under President Obama before stepping down in February, and during her tenure managed to get carbon dioxide listed as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. She also pushed through a more stringent set of fuel-economy standards for cars—a historic move.

Jackson's record on emissions and efficiency will provide some help to Apple as it tries to reduce its carbon footprint. The company has been upgrading its data centers and commercial facilities with greener materials and transitioning to renewable energy sources.

But according to Apple's own environmental reports, just 2 percent of the company's carbon footprint comes from its facilities. The remaining portion comes from its supply chain, meaning that Jackson's bigger task will likely be keeping an eye on Apple's contractors overseas rather than greening the company's buildings.

One way she could do that is by vastly expanding Apple's specialized environmental audit program. In 2011, the company conducted 14 such exams and found nearly a dozen cases where its partners had failed to update their environmental impact statements, register for pollutant permits, or make other changes to comply with Apple's supplier code of conduct. In 2012, the number of specialized environmental audits jumped to 55—a nearly 300 percent increase. It wouldn't be surprising if, under Jackson, that figure were to grow again.

Inspections are one thing; making sure Apple's partners actually comply is another. The corporation famously forces its contractors to get by on extremely thin margins, which raises their incentive to cut corners. There's a probation system—one company was reprimanded after it was discovered that waste oil was being flushed down a public toilet—but how often probation is imposed isn't always clear.

While it's great news that Apple has already trimmed its buildings' energy usage and transitioned to renewable power, any further improvements will produce diminishing returns. So, even as Jackson's experience at EPA leaves her with strong green credentials, succeeding at Apple will probably require a different approach.  

Apple's first supplier-responsibility report, issued in 2007, was four pages long. Every year since then, it's gotten a little lengthier and more detailed. If Jackson lives up to her reputation, the next edition should offer a great deal to dig into.