In Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice, from the best guidance they’ve gotten to what they’re still sorting out. Here, Connie Yang, a product designer working on Apple’s sustainability goals, talks about what plastic-free packaging can look like.
In 2015, Apple took a massive step toward a more sustainable future by announcing lofty goals to have plastic-free packaging within a decade and to be completely carbon-neutral across its supply chain by 2030. A key player in the former environmental initiative is Connie Yang, the company’s director of product design in hardware engineering.
Since joining the company in 2014, Yang has been a crucial part of Apple’s plastic-eliminating effort, which has already reduced plastic in product packaging by 75%. This is crucial because, as Yang tells Bustle, plastic recycling is certainly not what it promises to be, so the best way forward is to avoid it entirely.
“Until I got this job, I assumed that when I put something in my recycling bin, it gets recycled,” says Yang, who received a bachelor of science in both mechanical engineering and physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in product design from Loughborough University. “For so many complicated reasons, that’s not true. The reason we have to get rid of plastics is that, [based on our research], we’ve concluded that the best thing that we can make our packaging out of are materials made from fiber, because the highest percentage of those materials are recycled consistently throughout the world.”
Before joining Apple, Yang, who is 41, channeled her passion for the outdoors into crafting sustainable outdoor gear for NEMO Equipment, Inc. Her childhood in Missouri was full of camping trips and fishing excursions, she says, and nowadays, when she’s not leading climate action change, Yang can be found surfing and exploring the outdoors in San Francisco.
“Know you’re not alone: There are so many others who feel really deeply that this is the right thing to do. We have one Earth. Who are we waiting for?”
You have a background in sustainability, particularly in outdoor equipment. What made Apple appeal to you?
Before this role, I was at a startup and experienced that feeling of wanting to be part of something bigger but knowing it was really hard to do [major climate action] alone. Going to Apple was easy because of [its] values. Apple asks really bold questions. They take risks. They tackle big problems, and there’s this longstanding commitment to the environment.
When people aim to have “green” or sustainable jobs, they might assume they’ll need to work for smaller companies, and not somewhere like Apple.
I challenge the notion that you have to be at a nonprofit. Meaningful work can happen anywhere. It comes down to [whether] your values are reflected in the company. This kind of value-driven work requires a lot of initiative. It’s not that the company was just born out of the womb that way. It takes people within the company to challenge the norms, it takes talking to people, learning, and then saying, “Let’s do this in a different way.” And getting that buy-in [from the company] is so important.
What’s inspiring you in the world of sustainability right now?
There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in the packaging world. In the Bay Area, where I live, there’s a store near me where you can refill your laundry detergent, soaps, and shampoos. It’s changing the whole paradigm.
Apple aims to eliminate plastic from all packaging by 2025, and you’ve already made significant progress toward that. What would dream packaging look like for you?
At Apple, one of [our big focuses] is user experience in opening products up. The product is not just thrown in there without thought. My dream packaging would help you figure out what to do with it after you’re done with the unboxing — for instance, packaging that makes it clear it’s recyclable, or that’s easy to break down. We often think about the unboxing experience and how wonderful it is, but not the labor of disposing of the boxes afterward.
That makes a lot of sense, like how the worst part of Christmas morning is when taking out the trash. I know you’re using a fiber replacement material in place of plastic. Can you explain what that is, and how consumers can tell the difference between Apple’s fiber replacement and plastic?
When we say “fiber,” we mean a renewable resource that’s sourced responsibly, usually made from trees, bamboo, or agricultural byproducts like bagasse, which is a sugar cane. For instance, in iPhone 14, there’s no more shrink-wrap or plastic wrap over the box. There are pull tabs on the back, which give better accessibility. You just have to pull the tabs to open it. It’s a different, easier unboxing experience, and at the end of the day, you don’t have a little pile of plastic left over.
Another example is the little screen film wrap, which people love to peel from the surface of their iPhones. That used to be made of plastic, but now we have a paper-based alternative that’s still really fun to peel, and you can put that in the recycling bin.
It sounds like a win-win. What obstacles stand in your way, or in Apple’s way, of reaching these big sustainability goals?
The biggest challenge is that there’s not a great blueprint for doing this. We’re inventing new materials. We’re building new technologies, and that’s how we get to the last 4%, because we’re 96% plastic-free. That’s a big challenge, but one that’s super fun and feels really impactful.
How can other people follow in those footsteps?
At the company level, I think making public commitments is a great forcing function. It shows you care and that you’re willing to do hard things. I always tell the people I work with that it takes a lot of effort to do the right thing. Should that be a surprise to us? No, it should not.
Companies can also be really thoughtful about not just replacing plastic one-for-one with fiber, [since] there are places where you can get rid of the packaging altogether. We have to really question, why do we have this? Is this a value?
And for both companies and people, know you’re not alone: There are so many others who feel really deeply that this is the right thing to do. We have one Earth. Who are we waiting for?
On the note of words of wisdom, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Know what you can control versus what you cannot. We spend a lot of time worrying about what we have no control over, and that can leave us feeling powerless. But if you focus on the things that you can control and influence, you can actually take steps forward.
Is there any bad advice you’ve been given?
I always think about the advice, “You just need to put your head down and work hard, and good things will happen.” I want to call BS on that. Yes, put your head down to work, but also advocate for yourself. Do the self-work to understand what you want, communicate what you want, meet with other leaders, make your own luck. People can’t read your mind as to what you want.
Speaking of that hard work and those out-of-the-box steps, I’m curious, especially as somebody who’s taking on such a huge challenge, how do you keep burnout at bay?
Know what rejuvenates you and keep that holy in your life. Sometimes adding the activities that give you joy, even though it's adding, can feel like subtracting. It gives you more peace or stability. I love to surf, I love to spend time in nature. I try to do that as often as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the scope of Yang’s role. It has been updated to accurately reflect her position.
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