Opinion post by
C. Scott Brown
The launch of Apple’s iPhone 12 series confirmed something rumored for months prior: there will be no iPhone 12 charger in the box. When you buy an iPhone 12 in the US and most other countries, regardless of the model, it comes with what you see in the image above (and some additional paperwork). That’s it.
During the iPhone 12 launch event, Apple made a big to-do about this change. It put Lisa Jackson — the company’s VP of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives — on the roof of Apple HQ to talk about just how eco-friendly the company is. In her words, removing the charger, as well as the usually included wired EarPods, “reduces carbon emissions and avoids the mining and use of precious materials.” Additionally, she pointed out that removing those items enabled a “smaller, lighter iPhone box,” which allows the company to fit more products onto a single shipping pallet, further reducing its environmental impact.
Honestly, seeing Mrs. Jackson on the roof of Apple HQ surrounded by solar panels talking about how much Apple cares for the environment seems pretty convincing. However, Apple’s decision to remove the iPhone 12 charger and EarPods isn’t nearly as environmentally friendly as it makes it seem. It’s very possible that the change could allow Apple to earn more money in the end, making the motivation for these changes somewhat dubious.
First, let me explain why this big new change isn’t as great of a step in the battle against e-waste as Apple is cracking it up to be. Then, I’ll talk a bit about what Apple could have done instead.
No iPhone 12 charger: A PR distraction
Apple is pushing the narrative that its removal of in-box iPhone accessories is all about the environment. However, it is neglecting to mention a few other things related to that move:
- It is still making the charger: The iPhone 12 charger still exists, it’s just not in the box. Apple is producing them and selling them for $19 each.
- A lot of current iPhone chargers won’t work: The cable that comes in the box with your iPhone 12 is a Lightning-to-USB-C system. This is incompatible with every charger you previously received with another iPhone model. The sole exception is the iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max. In other words, unless you’re upgrading from an 11 Pro, you won’t be able to use the cable in the box unless — you guessed it — you buy a USB-C charger.
- The iPhone 12 can charge quickly, but likely not with what you own: The iPhone 12 lineup is capable of charging at 20W with the proper cable and charger. Apple provides you the cable for this, but not the charger. If you use an older 5W charger/cable from every other iPhone (or even the 18W system from the 11 Pro/11 Pro Max), you won’t see those 20W speeds. Once again, you’ll need to buy a charger from Apple for this. If you want to buy a third-party charger to give Apple the cold shoulder, it will need to be “Made for iPhone” under the MFi program. Otherwise, your phone will yell at you for using uncertified hardware.
Those three aspects of Apple’s decision to remove the iPhone 12 charger won’t be highlighted by Lisa Jackson while she’s on the roof of Apple HQ. After all, it’s hard to argue that environmentalism is the reasoning while simultaneously asking for $19 for a charger that was previously included for free.
Ultimately, Apple simply didn’t go far enough on behalf of the environment. Removing the charger and the EarPods is a big step in the right direction, sure, but the effort is hollow without going all the way. Here are two ways Apple could have done this better.
Option #1: Transparent, but still not eco-friendly
One of the biggest issues I have with this situation is Apple’s attempts to capitalize on it financially. First, the company is saving money by not packaging the iPhone 12 charger or the Apple EarPods in the box. Then, it’s saving more money by making the box smaller and spending less on shipping fees. Finally, it stands to then earn additional revenue by selling the charger and EarPods separately for $19 each.
Don’t forget that the new MagSafe system can also charge your iPhone 12. There’s no MagSafe charger in the box, either, and buying one of those will set you back $39.
Related: How fast charging really works
This all makes it seem as if Apple’s motivations aren’t about the environment at all. The easiest way for Apple to avoid this would be to offer the charger and the EarPods for free via an aftermarket system. If the company made it so you could stop into an Apple Store with your iPhone 12 and get a free 20W charger and a set of EarPods, it would eliminate the implication that Apple stands to financially prosper from this decision. Invariably, not every iPhone 12 buyer would do this. This, in turn, would have the effect Apple says it wants: the creation of fewer chargers and headphones. At the same time, the move would seem more genuinely environmentally conscious, rather than a way to get an extra $40 from customers.
Of course, this still isn’t as environmentally friendly as it could be. The chargers are still being produced. They also require their own packaging and need to be shipped from China to the rest of the world. The environmental impact is still there.
For Apple to truly make a stand for the environment above its own bottom line, it would need to take more drastic measures. It would need to make iPhones compatible with everything else.
Option #2: Transparent and eco-friendly
While the option posed above gets rid of the financial incentive for Apple’s removal of the iPhone 12 charger, it would only partially help the environment. The cables and chargers would still need to be created, and the compatibility issues with Lightning-to-USB-C would still exist. For the company to truly make the iPhone more environmentally friendly, it would need to do what environmentalists have long been asking for: eliminate the proprietary Lightning connector and go all-in on USB-C.
Yes, USB-C is still a mess of a system. However, USB-C is still better than Lightning in that every cable fits in every USB-C device and does the bare minimum: deliver power and transfer data.
The European Commission has long been fighting to create legislation that would prevent Apple (and any other company) from releasing products that require proprietary cabling. A one-cable solution is not only environmentally friendly but also user-friendly. If you had one cable that could charge your phone, laptop, tablet, and e-reader regardless of the brands of any of those devices, wouldn’t that be far better than what we have today?
With most of the electronics industry embracing USB-C at this point, Apple is the only major holdout with Lightning. If the company ditched Lightning on iPhones it would be a move towards sustainability that could never be mistaken for profit-motivated change. And hey, it already did it with iPads — what’s stopping it from doing it with iPhones?
iPhone 12 charger is gone, but what’s coming instead?
Let me close this out by making something perfectly clear: the core idea of Apple removing the in-box charger from the iPhone 12 lineup is, in itself, a good thing. Apple is right in saying that not producing more chargers than necessary is better for the environment. Android OEMs are making fun of Apple at the moment, but we (and you) know that it’s only a matter of time before they also remove the charger from their own phones. Apple and other OEMs might not do it because it’s the right thing to do, but at least they’re doing something. Apple should be commended for leading the way here.
However, there’s still so much that Apple (and every electronics manufacturer) could be doing. Getting rid of Lightning and other proprietary connectors would be a huge step in the right direction. Government mandates requiring electronic OEMs to only use one type of system would also be terrific. More ubiquitous recycling systems would also be great, as would better and cheaper access to repairs (something Apple has repeatedly blocked) and longer software upgrade cycles. There’s still a ton of work to do.
My concern now, though, is with MagSafe. Apple’s next big move could be to simply remove the Lightning port from future iPhones altogether and use MagSafe as its charging/data transfer solution of the future. Of course, that would put us right back where we started: with Apple having a proprietary platform that no one else has. One that will need to be built and shipped for the basic functionality of the phone.
The bottom line is that it isn’t likely that Apple or any other electronic OEM will do right by the environment on its own. Apple had the option to make big steps here, and it didn’t for whatever reason. Despite its literal rooftop posturing, Apple’s profits appear to trump its care for the environment in the end.