The 'carbon neutral' Apple Watch is a reboot of Apple's reality distortion field

 The Apple Watch Series 9 on a black background
The Apple Watch Series 9 on a black background

If you're planning to pre-order an Apple Watch 9 from the Apple Store today, you'll see a new green leaves logo (below) next to special 'carbon neutral' versions of the smartwatch. But what exactly does it mean? It means that Apple is ramping up its laudable Apple 2030 plan to reduce its environmental impact – but also that the company's famous 'reality distortion field' is alive and well.

Apple introduced the Apple Watch 9 – its first 'carbon neutral' product – to Mother Earth (played by Octavia Spencer) at its iPhone 15 event this week. She was right to be skeptical. The idea, while commendable, is also a tad contradictory and unrealistic.

A laptop screen showing the Apple Store page for an Apple Watch 9
A laptop screen showing the Apple Store page for an Apple Watch 9

On one hand, the new badge is a well-earned marker of Apple's impressive progress towards reducing its smartwatch's carbon footprint. Apple's gone well beyond ticking eco boxes – it even forecasts how much electricity your Watch will use over its lifetime and offsets that with renewable energy investments.

But on the other hand, it's a bit odd to label a product – particularly one that sells in the tens of millions every year – as completely 'carbon neutral'. As a new report from the New Climate Institute (a Germany-based think tank for climate policy) says: "It is an inaccurate exaggeration to imply that the company’s products are anywhere close to having reached the point of having no climate footprint."

That's why, despite Apple's leadership in reducing carbon emissions and the alluring warm glow of that new 'carbon neutral' logo, it's really just another example of its famous marketing distortion field. Yes, the one that somehow manages to persuade us to keep upgrading our gadgets every year...

The 'carbon neutral' badge explained

How does that 'carbon neutral' Apple Watch claim break down? Apple states that it's managed to reduce product emissions by an impressive 75% for the Watch bundles that qualify for its new badge.

Those watches include any aluminum Apple Watch Series 9 or SE models that are paired with its new Sport Loop. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 also qualifies when you pair it with Apple's new Trail Loop or Alpine Loop.

That 75% reduction in emissions comes from three things; the use of 100% clean electricity during the manufacturing and the lifetime of the product, at least 30% of the Watch's weight being made from recycled or renewable material. And at least 50% of its shipping coming from methods other than air.

These are all positive steps, if far from emissions-free. So the remaining 25% of that 'carbon neutral' claim comes from the slightly more controversial use of "high-quality carbon credits."

An Apple Watch face showing a graph of Apple's reduced emissions
An Apple Watch face showing a graph of Apple's reduced emissions

Carbon credits, which see companies fund eco-friendly projects in return for emitting defined amounts of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, have come under fire recently.

A series of reports from The Guardian have even suggested that many offsets do absolutely nothing to combat global warming. This is likely why Apple is claiming its credits are instead "high quality", which it says are focused on "restoring grasslands, wetlands, and forests."

These credits are as complex as they are controversial. But the fact remains that while doubts surround their efficacy – and the need to ship Apple Watches, whether by air or otherwise, continues to exist – that 'carbon neutral' label is a little optimistic. More realistically, it's a shiny badge to show that Apple is on the right track, even if it's still miles from its destination.

Is that a problem? After all, what's wrong with a company banging its own eco drum, or helping us feel a bit smug when we buy a smartwatch that has legitimately taken a machete to its own environmental impact.

Well, the trouble is that suggesting a new gadget has zero impact on the planet during its lifetime doesn't really help increase awareness of the work that still needs to be done. And as climate commentators like the NewClimate Institute argue, it also undermines the significant progress that Apple is genuinely making...

Don't disappoint Mother

For all of its slightly optimistic 'carbon neutral' claims for individual products, Apple is blazing a tech trail when it comes to reducing its environmental impact. Its latest environmental report states that the company has reduced its overall carbon footprint by over 45 percent since 2015.

Many of its products – from the MacBook Pro to the iPad Air – now have 100% recycled aluminum shells. And it's pushing its supply chain hard towards renewable energy, with hundreds of manufacturers now signed up to using 100% clean energy in their Apple-related work by 2030. We asked Apple which products are next in line for its 'carbon neutral' badge, but it simply pointed us towards its broader goal of all products reaching that mark in under seven years.

But Apple also can't get away from the fact that it's still pushing annual upgrade cycles that often feel unnecessary. It'd be a bit hypocritical of TechRadar to suggest that no-one should ever upgrade their tech, but the Apple Watch 9's most eco-friendly feature might be that it's too boring to tempt people into upgrading. 'Carbon neutral' feels like a handy new 'feature' for an incremental product that (aside from Double Tap) has no obvious tagline.

"You’re not trying to bribe Mother Nature with Apple swag?” says the Mother Nature character in Apple's promo video when presented with the new Apple Watch. While Apple isn't exactly 'bribing' us into buying smartwatches with its 'carbon neutral' badges, it is also worth knowing exactly what that claim means.

Still, if Apple does meet its 2030 goal of all Apple devices having a "net zero climate impact," that new label won't be needed at all. And that would be a genuine cause for celebration.

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