BY MIA UZELL
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF APPLE
Addressing the corporate sector’s complicity in sociopolitical issues—from structural racism to climate change—has never been more vital than in recent years. At Apple, Alisha Johnson is a part of the burgeoning activism movement toward intersectional environmental justice, racial equity, and sustainability in the corporate arena and beyond.
While she had previously worked in the private sector, Johnson first experienced the nexus between the community and the environment during her time under the Obama administration at the Environmental Protection Agency. During a period largely contextualized by the grave aftermath of the BP oil spill, community naturally became a focus of environmental policy.
“I didn’t really have a broader insight into the connection between the environment and people’s health, so when I joined EPA that was the focus of the work,” Johnson admits. “It focused on how we can create policies to ensure that people have clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, safe places to live, and safe communities to work in. That was eye-opening for me.”
Moreover, Johnson’s time at the EPA focused on how marginalized populations have borne the weight of both environmental crises and the consequences of environmental negligence. “The revelations that came through a lot of the work is that negative [environmental] impacts too often disproportionately affect poor communities. So if you’re doing environmental policies right, you’re going to place specific focus on those communities that are most impacted.”
Now, Johnson leads external engagement for Apple’s Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives. The shift from the federal to the corporate realm is ostensibly a stark contrast in operation, but for Johnson, the work still hinges on this framework of intersectional environmentalism. In essence, community inclusion when it comes to resolutions is just as important as shaping federal policy.
While government leadership wrestles with the natural ebb and flow of policy perspective, Johnson says businesses are now arising as major stalwarts in mobilizing the execution of policy initiatives. “You need businesses that are proactive, that are continuing to push forward, and really view it as a priority—not just as a PR statement but in the execution of their work,” she explains. Johnson’s transition from the federal and private sector to Apple was more than a longitudinal move for her career. For her, the tech giant’s nonperformative commitment to equity cemented the shift.
Last summer, the nation faced a flashpoint in history, reckoning with the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the relics of structural racism. Yearning to align themselves with the public consensus, companies vowed to center equity and inclusion in their infrastructure. Among a raft of new commitments, Apple launched a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative that focuses on dismantling systemic barriers through education, economic opportunity, and criminal justice reform.
“We started the initiative last June and like a lot of companies, we recognized that there was increased public awareness around these issues,” Johnson says. The comprehensive initiative involved the creation of the Propel Center, a global innovation and learning hub in Atlanta for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), an Apple Developer Academy geared toward coding and tech education for Detroit students; and venture capital funding for entrepreneurs of color.
However, for Apple, this commitment wasn’t a novel one. “This wasn’t new work at Apple. It was already so much work that was happening that was focused on advancing equity and addressing systemic racism,” Johnson says. A year later, Apple has sustained its community promise. Most recently, REJI expanded the breadth of its solutions with the creation of a Global Hispanic-Serving Institution Equity Innovation Hub, a new cohort of the Apple Entrepreneur Camp immersive tech lab for Hispanic/Latinx founders and developers, and a fund for activists working to advance criminal justice reform and environmental justice. Johnson continues, “This effort helped us to really first identify work that was happening within the company, put us under some key priority areas, and then to grow that work.”
As climate change looms with pressing environmental demands, Apple is structuring its behemoth operation toward sustainability. “You can look at any region in the world and see the devastating impacts of climate change and it’s not coming down the line. It’s happening now,” Johnson says, emphasizing the imminence of an irreversible moment.
“There is absolutely an impact on communities that have been under-resourced. We have to ensure that when we are looking at this urgent issue that we are centering those communities.”
In a first-of-its-kind carbon removal initiative, Apple started the Restore Fund to address the teeming crisis of exponentially increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. The $200 million fund, launched in tandem with Conservation International and Goldman Sachs, aims to remove at least one million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. While the environmental model involves investments in forestry restoration to generate a financial return for its investors, the resolution revolves around community discourse within the designated regions. “We are investing in the restoration of these areas. To do that, we have to talk to the community about the ground in these regions to make sure that as we restore and invest in these areas we are considering their livelihood,” Johnson says.
Combatting carbon emissions is a multipronged plan within the corporation. With already more than a decade of work steering its climate focus, Apple transitioned to a carbon-neutral corporate footprint in 2020. Now, it is pledging to be carbon neutral across its sprawling manufacturing and supply chain by 2030. More than 110 suppliers are on board and nearly eight gigawatts of planned clean energy are slated to come online. With this grand commitment, more than 15 million metric tons of CO2e will be avoided annually, which is equivalent to more than 3.4 million cars off the road.
“As we are looking at this goal, we recognized that we have a road map to get there but it involves technology that is being developed outside of Apple by companies in regions around the world where we operate,” Johnson explains. To ensure its corporate path remains centered at the intersection between environmentalism and equality, the Impact Accelerator was created to invest in Black and Brown leaders in environmentally focused innovations for green technology and clean power.
“It is the idea that we can help to scale some of these Black- and Brown-led businesses that are doing really interesting work in the environmental space with a focus on climate change, but also on conserving resources and removing talcum from products,” Johnson says. “We are ensuring that we are looking across our full environmental priorities and bringing in businesses that share those goals.”
Leveraging its access to cutting-edge technology, the company recently onboarded its first cohort of diverse leaders who will also be considered as future Apple suppliers.
“Through this goal, we are bringing along our supply chain and manufacturing partners. What’s exciting is that companies are coming to us voluntarily, reading the writing on the wall, and recognizing, ‘If I want to continue working with Apple, I want to make sure that I am aligning with their environmental goals,’” Johnson says. These environmental expectations are also catalyzing a seismic shift in the industry. “Our suppliers are often not just suppliers for Apple. They work with other companies in our industry and the broader sector. If they are meeting the goal for their Apple production, what we are actually seeing to be true is that they are also going to continue it in other parts of their business so they make a broader impact.”
Through holding itself accountable in its own corporate sphere, Apple is setting the tone for an entire industry through its progressive efforts: “We want other companies to follow our example and we know that because we have a pretty big platform if we do something, we are shining a light on what’s possible.”