The Apple chief executive was right to call out his climate sceptic critics, but, as he already knows, the case for green investment is financial as well as ethical
Bravo to Tim Cook. The news that the Apple chief executive verbally smacked down questions from climate sceptic group National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) over the IT giants high profile investment in clean technologies is to be applauded.
He may have visibly lost his temper at the recent shareholder meeting when pushed on the economic rationale for the company's pledge to source 100 per cent of its power from renewables and NCPPR's assertion that Apple should focus solely on profitability, but his responses were sound.
"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI," he said, arguing the same rationale applied to worker safety and environmental issues. He then added the kicker, suggesting to NCPPR that he had no interest in working with shareholders whose only consideration was financial performance. "If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock," he said.
As an impassioned defence of the 'triple bottom line' and the argument that a company's values should extend beyond the simple maximisation of short term profit, it was hard to beat. I've been arguing for years that business leaders who profess to care about climate action should use their influence and political capital to challenge the toxic climate sceptic and turbocharged libertarian version of capitalist thinking that threatens the long term health and prosperity of both their organisations and the wider economy. It is great to see Cook do just that and more business leaders should be willing to follow his lead. It is about time UK business leaders who know action on climate change is critical called out the journalists and politicos who are undermining clean tech innovation, UK competitiveness in growth markets, and the long term resilience of the economy.
However, while Cook's intervention is to be welcomed, the line of attack he opted for represented something of a missed opportunity. And I suspect that once his temper subsided Cook realised this himself.
The Apple boss was right to argue ROI should not be the sole determining factor in corporate decision-making, but in so doing he forgot to also argue that action to tackle climate change and other long term risks is often still informed by the need to deliver ROI. Issues relating to environmental performance, workers' rights, and access for the disabled are absolutely informed by the pursuit of long term return on investment, it is just that progressive firms like Apple understand that the short term costs associated with acting in a responsible manner on each of these fronts delivers huge long term gains in terms of reputational kudos, access to new markets, operational efficiency, technological innovation, and risk mitigation.
This is particularly apparent with green corporate investment where energy efficiency measures cut costs, renewable energy technologies reduce exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices and tackle climate risks, and greener supply chains help lower reputational risks that can impact sales and staff retention. Regardless of what he said, Cook does consider "the bloody ROI" when making decisions to step up investment in clean technologies.
However, in focusing solely on the ethical case for green action Cook gave the NCPPR precisely the answer it wanted, as evidenced by its counter-attack accusing Apple of being cavalier with its investors' interests. "Too often investors look at short-term returns and are unaware of corporate policy decisions that may affect long-term financial prospects," the group said, in a response dripping with the irony of an organisation that dismisses climate risks warning others about long term financial prospects. "After today's meeting, investors can be certain that Apple is wasting untold amounts of shareholder money to combat so-called climate change. The only remaining question is: how much? The company's CEO fervently wants investors who care more about return on investments than reducing CO2 emissions to no longer invest in Apple. Maybe they should take him up on that advice."
They absolutely should take Cook up on his advice, because responsible businesses who take long term risks and opportunities seriously want shareholders who do likewise. However, as is evident from Cook's previous comments on Apple's fast-improving green performance, he knows that he is more likely to convince shareholders of the wisdom of his approach if he highlights both the financial and the ethical case for stronger environmental action.
No doubt, NCPPR will give Cook the chance to explain how the "bloody ROI" is still crucial to the green economy soon enough. He should relish the opportunity to explain to this most blinkered of organisations another one of the many ways in which it is wrong.
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