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Why Did Apple Hire Former EPA Chief Lisa Jackson?

It's a clever move by the embattled company

Getty/Jewel Samad

Among his predictable slams on Google Glass and hints about getting into the television business during last night’s appearance at a California tech conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook had some actual news: The company has hired Lisa Jackson, who just concluded a four-year run as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to run its environmental initiatives. This is not, contrary to appearance, your typical revolving-door move: Jackson isn’t supposed to have any lobbying role, and Apple certainly has plenty of legitimate environmental projects for her to work on. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some political motivation in Jackson’s hire.

Jackson is a career bureaucrat with more experience in compliance and management than supply chains and data centers—not the likeliest candidate for a corporate environmental-responsibility role. Thus far, the person in charge of Apple’s green initiatives hasn’t been a public figure at all—its environmental reports bear nobody’s name—so choosing someone as high-profile as Jackson is clearly meant to draw notice. And the company is desperate to change the conversation about it in D.C.: The announcement comes a week after Apple was ripped for (legally) avoiding taxes, and it’s also dealing with a nasty antitrust probe into alleged e-book price fixing. What better time for Apple to remind Democrats that the company tries to do well by the environment?1

It’s a tried-and-true corporate strategy: misdirection that’s intended to gin up goodwill with politicians. Walmart, for example, began an intense push on its environmental initiatives after drawing fire for its labor practices. After all, energy efficiency and reduced packaging make much more business sense than allowing workers to unionize or paying better wages to factory workers in Bangladesh, and if such initiatives convince powerful liberals that you’ve got similar values, all the better.

Apple, for its part, is still a significant generator of carbon emissions, and any kind of carbon pricing—namely, a tax—would seriously impact its bottom line. Then there’s potential regulation of e-waste, of which Apple’s products are a big contributor. So even though Jackson isn’t handling government relations, no doubt her knowledge of the regulatory landscape will be tremendously valuable to the company, which seems resigned to making friends with the feds.

Oh, and don’t be surprised if, sometime soon, Apple announces a renewed push on energy efficiency and reduced packaging.

  1. In 2009, for instance, Apple quit the Chamber of Commerce over the organization’s stance on global warming.