Green or Greed: The Impact of an iPhone Box Without a Charger

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Image Credit: Steve Johnson via Unsplash

If there is one constant that all tech enthusiasts can agree on it is that they hate things being taken away. When Android phones started to go away from removable batteries to compete with the iPhone on design, many enthusiasts were up in arms (so much so that articles like this are still a thing). I vividly recall Samsung and LG users complaining when the Galaxy S6 and G6 went to sealed batteries. The same goes for when every company except for LG removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from their flagship phones. As creatures of habit, a swift departure from what we are used to is hard to adjust to immediately. In the case of the headphone jack and removable battery, these were two standards in phones for decades that were suddenly gone. So the consumer was understandably uncomfortable with this change.

It is with this aversion to an immediate change in mind that Apple has announced its smartphone packaging that has been polarizing, to say the least. With the release of the iPhone 12 series, Apple will no longer include Lightning earbuds or a charging wall adapter in the box of the iPhone. The immediate reaction has been a bit mixed on this decision. On one hand, some are suggesting that this is Apple attempting to be eco-friendly and helping to minimize e-waste. On the other hand, some are suggesting that this is Apple prioritizing profits first and looking to make more money off of accessory sales. So who is right? As in most cases, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

The Environmental Awareness Argument

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Image Credit: Jennifer Griffin via Unsplash

The pitch that Apple has made to justify this decision is one that after the initial reaction is easy to understand. The company has been doing many initiatives over the years to be more environmentally conscious to be completely carbon neutral by 2030. The company has taken measures to use renewable energy sources in its stores and offices and has also been using recycled aluminum for products for a few years.

Taking away the charging block from the box on iPhones is the latest step in this effort. According to Apple, this has two benefits. The first is that most people already have chargers that they use with their iPhones, and if they are coming from Android they have wireless chargers or blocks that will be compatible. At worst, an Android switcher would have to do is buy a separate wall adapter if they have an older charger with a USB-A port. The second benefit according to Apple is that by removing the adapter from the box the overall size of the box is made significantly smaller. The advantage of this is that more boxes can fit on a pallet when they are shipped from warehouses to store shelves. This means more boxes in fewer shipments, which in turn leads to fewer carbon emissions.

Apple’s pitch is very convincing in a logical sense. Also when considering the lock-in factor of the smartphone upgrade cycle it tends to make even more sense. According to a survey done by PCMag, only 18% of users switched from Android to iPhone while only 11% of iPhone users switched to Android. The other 71% of users are content with staying with their established platform of choice. There are various reasons as to why this is such as comfort level with a platform, buy-in to services such as iMessage, or attractive upgrade programs that companies like Samsung offer. Therefore from Apple’s perspective, slightly inconveniencing that minority is worth shipping out fewer chargers for the majority. Apple is taking a greater good approach with this.

As with when they removed the headphone jack on the iPhone 7, the competition has started to mock Apple for this decision. Arguably Apple’s biggest competition in key markets, Samsung, has taken to highlighting how all Galaxy phones come with a charging block in the box. Companies like Samsung and Google will inevitably follow this move within a couple of years and walk back the critique of Apple’s decision. In the end, the numbers of Apple’s decisions tend to make sense and the companies commitment to the environment is to be applauded.

Is Apple Greedy?

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Image Credit: Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

Most Apple critics have instantly taken to Twitter and blog posts to decry Apple’s decision to remove the charging block from the iPhone box. The instant reaction is that Apple is being greedy, requiring an additional accessory expense to an already expensive smartphone. Many have lamented this decision in the context of older phones that would come with a full suite of accessories as part of the out of the box experience. The argument from these critics is that because most people are programmed to have a new charger with their new phone that the charger will be purchased, resulting in Apple’s environmental gains being minimal.

The other criticism that can be levied is that there were no price savings passed to the consumer with this decision. If anything, the price of the standard iPhone went up compared to last year. Last year, the 6.1-inch screen iPhone 11 started at $699. This year there are two standard iPhone 12 models: the iPhone 12 mini with a 5.4-inch screen and the iPhone 12 with a 6.1-inch screen. The 12 Mini starts at $729 while the larger iPhone 12 starts at $829. The larger of the two is the natural upgrade from last year’s iPhone 11 and is $130 more without the charger in the box.

While there are other factors for the price increase, namely the inclusion of 5G on this year’s iPhones, it is easy to come to the conclusion that Apple is charging more for its phone and giving less out of the box than in the past. The other criticism of this move has been that the charger that most iPhone users utilize is the traditional 5W charger that uses a USB-A cable instead of the USB-C cable that is found in the box of the iPhone 12 series. By this logic, the environmental appeal is lost since new wall adapters would need to be purchased to utilize this cable, making the decision to remove the brick in the first place irrelevant.

Ultimately, it comes back to the idea of Apple being greedy. The simple notion that they have taken away from the traditional phone buying experience and have charged more for it all the while emphasizing a smaller retail box. These factors in a vacuum make it easy for people that are critical of the decisions that Apple makes to feel validated about their disdain for the company. These critics have also suggested varied pricing for including a charger versus not including one which seems like a viable option but not one that Apple will even consider entertaining since this is the direction that they are going regardless of any poor press.

Is It That Big of a Deal?

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Image Credit: Marcel Strauss via Unsplash

So is Apple removing the charger from the box of iPhones that big of a deal? I would say that it is a statement more than anything. A statement that this accessory does not need to have a dedicated wall plug, and because it has never been done before it seems so outlandish. But even me as an Android user, if I were to switch to the iPhone 12 this would not impact me since I have a bevy of USB-C input chargers and a wireless charger that I could utilize. What this decision does is force the consumer to shop around for a charger, an ecosystem that thanks to companies like Anker are becoming more diverse by the day.

The troubling element of all of this is that there will inevitably be many people that will see that their iPhone does not come with a charger and buy the cheapest charger that they can find from a gas station or convenience store. These chargers degrade the quality of phones and have been known to destroy batteries if used repeatedly over time. What this move by Apple could do is enforce a sort of charger literacy that has sorely been lacking from the smartphone ecosystem for years.

There are so many charging standards and different types of chargers to navigate through that it becomes hard to make sense of any of it (Joanna Stern has a great breakdown of this in this video, please give it a watch). The ideal situation should be that we buy a couple of chargers separately and keep using those same chargers as we upgrade phones to eliminate the needs for manufacturers to have to ship chargers with every new phone purchased.

This is not the only step that should be taken in the pursuit of minimizing e-waste, however. We as a collective tech community need to be more responsible for recycling our old devices, especially in categories such as truly wireless headphones that have short life spans and e-waste written all over them. In the end, Apple’s transition to not shipping chargers was not perfect by any means. But it does create a conversation around if we need these chargers in a phone box or if it is just learned behavior. If the result of this is better charging standards and charger purchases, then the rough transition was worth it.

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