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Why Apple is buying 36,000 acres of forest

Apple is partnering with The Conversation Fund to preserve two large tracts of forest and promote sustainable paper. Some businesses are recognizing the importance of their role, as well as see the profit, in promoting environmental sustainability.

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    Then EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson speaks at the 2012 Tribal Nations Conference at the Interior Department in Washington. Apple is expanding its environmental efforts by investing in a new Chinese solar power project and preserving 36,000 acres of “sustainable” timberland in Maine and North Carolina.
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Apple is stepping up on sustainability.

On Thursday, the tech giant, in partnership with The Conservation Fund, revealed plans to buy 36,000 acres of American timberland as part of a new effort to preserve forests while developing more eco-friendly product packaging. The decision is in line with Apple’s commitment to environmental responsibility, which includes a drive to reduce the company’s carbon footprint through renewable energy.

More broadly, the initiative reflects a shifting relationship between commerce and conservation as businesses recognize the importance of their role, as well as see the profit, in environmental sustainability.

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“For the largest corporations in the United States, clean energy is now becoming mainstream,” according to the World Wildlife Fund’s latest “Power Forward” report. “Nearly half of the largest companies in the US are capturing significant business value by cutting emissions and using clean forms of energy to power their operations.”

As of 2013, six in ten Fortune 100 companies had clean energy and climate goals, saving nearly $1.1 billion through energy efficiency and renewable energy, the report found. The environmental impact those companies made in 2012 alone is equivalent to taking 15 coal plants offline.

A similar shift is occurring globally. In 2013, IKEA partnered with Japanese carmaker Nissan and energy provider Ecotricity to install charging points in parking areas at all their UK stores – making the Swedish home furnishings retailer among the first to proactively meet consumer demand for electric car-charging stations, according to Fortune magazine. Spanish clothing brand Zara’s mission statement includes a commitment to the environment, requiring energy-saving practices and recycling in stores and awareness campaigns for staff members.

“More and more companies are looking at social purpose and corporate citizenship as part of their core offering,” Jez Frampton, CEO of the international brand consultancy Interbrand, told Fortune. “Why? It helps drive purchases.”

Apple’s latest effort is also proactive. In collaboration with Virginia-based nonprofit The Conservation Fund, the tech giant pledged an unspecified amount of money to buy 32,400 acres of forest in Maine and 3,600 in North Carolina. The agreement places a conservation easement on the land so that future owners are legally bound to preserve the woodland and employ eco-friendly practices for tree logging and replanting.

The program aims to protect the forest while keeping it in the hands of private owners who pay taxes and create jobs, Larry Selzer, The Conservation Fund’s chief executive, told The Associated Press. Proceeds from reselling the land will be used to buy and protect additional tracts, he added.

And although Apple won’t necessarily buy paper made from trees on that land, Lisa Jackson, the company’s vice president of environmental initiatives, told the wire service that the effort would increase the overall supply of sustainable paper sources. Jackson is a former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

“The collective annual production of paper fiber from these two forests is equivalent to nearly half of the virgin fiber that went into iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, and Apple TV packaging last year,” Ms. Jackson and Mr. Selzer wrote in an article published on Medium.

(In the last quarter of 2014, Apple sold more than 74 million iPhones alone, most of which came in cardboard boxes.)

“Solving this conservation challenge requires some of our most innovative thinking,” Jackson and Selzer wrote. “Business and conservation must work hand in hand.”

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