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Apple CEO Tim Cook Worked in an Aluminum Factory Before Leading One of the Greenest Tech Companies

Arianna Davis
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook recently sat down with OprahMag.com to discuss Apple's sustainability efforts and their battle against climate change.
  • Here, Cook opens up about his own full-circle journey to being green—and how Apple hopes to become even more environmentally friendly.

As the Chief Executive Officer of Apple, Tim Cook is juggling a lot of responsibility. (I'd love to see the notes app on his iPhone.) Just a few of the items on his to-do list include overseeing product releases, debuting a brand new streaming platform, and, of course, launching a book club with our very own O of O.

Over the last few years, however, Cook has added an even bigger picture initiative to his plate: Ensuring Apple remains one of the most sustainable, environmentally-friendly tech companies, not just in the United States, but across the globe.

But as Cook recalls during a sit-down with OprahMag.com, he's come a long way. More than three decades before he was named CEO of Apple, the Mobile, Alabama native was just a 19-year-old working at a Reynold's Wrap factory. "I was in the smelting department, seeing one of the most energy-eating processes out there every day," Cook remembers. "So to go from that to what we're doing at Apple...it's pretty full circle."

After graduating from Auburn University in Alabama, Cook went on to work for IBM for many years, eventually earning an MBA from Duke before landing senior positions at Intelligent Electronics and Compaq. In 1998, he joined the Apple team as Senior Vice President for worldwide operations.

In addition to making his way up the ladder to CEO, putting out products that were both cost-efficient and environmentally friendly has always been at the top of Cook's priority list. But as the world (finally) pays increasing attention to the climate change crisis, the Apple team has made sustainability one of its biggest core values.

Currently, the tech giant can boast a few impressive feats, including that MacBook computers are encased in 100% recycled aluminum; 100 percent of their 43 (!) global facilities are powered by renewable electricity; and there are no single-use plastics used on any of their campuses, including Apple Park in Cupertino. And each day, a Material Engineering Lab works to create entirely new materials that the world has never seen before, all in an effort to ensure everything from your iPhone to your AirPods will eventually harm the Earth as little as possible.

As CEO, Cook is aware of how much power he holds to do better for the planet.

"One night, I was sitting watching a documentary about climate change, and it made me so ill. I immediately sent out a deck to everyone saying 'We're eliminating plastics from the company,'" Cook says. "So now when you walk into Apple Park, there's a reason you see things like Just Water boxes instead of plastic water bottles. There are no plastic straws. We just went through and and pushed the elimination."

Cook is adamant, however, that this mission is much bigger than him.

"This isn't a personal crusade—it's an Apple crusade. Yes, it's something that I'm very much behind, and there are key people like [Apple Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives] Lisa Jackson that have been a really important catalyst for us," he says. "But truth is that me or Lisa, or any small set of us, we can't push the dial at Apple. It's the company. Change happens when the company gets behind it."

Despite Apple's status as one of the leading green companies in the world, Cook is also candid that there's still much more to be done. "You can tell we care deeply about the packaging. We care about the 'aha moment' that the customer has when they open the box," he says. "But the company still has some way to go when it comes to packaging. We can make more advances. If you look at an Apple product today versus 2, 3 years ago, there's a lot less packaging, and the packaging is almost entirely recyclable. Not all of it, we're still working on some of it—it's a journey. But there's no doubt in my mind that we will come up with more inventions."

Cook has certainly come a long way from the kid who worked in an aluminum factory down South. As Oprah has said, Apple products "are in a billion pockets, y'all!" And with that kind of reach and impact, there's no telling where Apple will take the sustainability movement next. But Cook likes to encourage consumers to do their part, too.

The easiest way he suggests? Take part in Apple's trade-in program. By simply turning in your old products, you'll either get credit towards a new purchase, or cash on an Apple gift card. It's a win-win: The customer benefits, and so does the planet. And why not hand over the goods you no longer need? After all, as Cook points out: "You wouldn't leave your old car in a drawer or the garage!"

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