"Of course corporations should have values, because people should have values," says the soft-spoken tech leader, who has been vocal on a range of civic issues, from gay rights to privacy rules. "And corporations are just a bunch of people."
Cook met with USA TODAY to discuss the company's expanded corporate partnership with (RED), the 20-person organization founded by U2 singer Bono that has had an outsized impact on those suffering from HIV/AIDS by providing life-saving medicines.
Beginning Wednesday, which in Australia marks December 1's World AIDS Day, Apple will festoon 400 stores, a fourfold increase from last year, with (RED) signage, while expanding the number of products, games and apps whose purchases channel an undisclosed percentage of their sales price to the organization.
Among the new (RED) products are an iPhone 7 battery pack case and Beats Solo 3 Wireless headphones. Nearly two dozen games such as Angry Birds and Clash of Clans will donate all proceeds from in-app purchases. And for every item bought at an Apple Store using Apple Pay, the company will donate $1 to (RED), up to $1 million. Bank of America will match that donation when its cards are used in an Apple Pay transaction.
Those who buy a new album by The Killers, Don't Waste Your Wishes, on iTunes will see the entire purchase go to (RED), while anyone wanting to know more about the battle against AIDS can avail themselves of a free download of Spike Jonze's 2010 documentary The Lazarus Effect.
"Whether you want to donate or just learn about the issue, we wanted there to be something for everyone," says Cook.
So far, (RED) has impacted the lives of 70 million HIV/AIDS sufferers, says (RED) CEO Deb Dugan.
"It takes just 30 cents a day to keep someone alive," says Dugan, who also joined the conversation at Apple's headquarters. It ranged from talk about eradicating the global AIDS epidemic by 2030 to the need for companies to use their platforms to create social issue awareness.
"We put our weight behind lots of things in the civil rights area," says Cook. "Similarly, I think it's key that people think about what they stand for and help their communities. We always say that we want to leave the world better than we found it. So, we try to thoughtfully decide how we can do that."
That sort of C-suite level initiative on social matters may be necessary as a new administration gets ready to take office in January.
Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel aside, many tech titans supported president-elect Donald Trump's rival Hillary Clinton and several publicly voiced concern over Trump's attitude toward immigrants, Muslims, women and the disabled.
They've now found themselves off kilter with the many voters and consumers who put the real estate mogul into office, and they're now anxiously awaiting word on how Trump and his appointees will treat the wealthy, often left-leaning industry.
Cook was among those tech CEOs favoring Clinton, and according to a trove of emails uncovered by Wikileaks, he was in the running as a possible vice presidential pick before Tim Kaine got the nod.
While campaigning, Trump repeatedly said he would force companies such as Apple to build their products in the United States. A report in Nikkei Asian Review last week cited unnamed sources saying Apple had asked two of its biggest Chinese suppliers about the impact of moving their manufacturing to the U.S. Apple would not comment. Most industry observers believe such a move would drastically increase the cost of Apple's products.
While companies like Apple may now be defending their manufacturing strategy — or changing it — they may leaned on to support initiatives the Trump-Pence administration won't.
Corporate America needs to step up
"Looking at the funding and policy positions of the new administration, to say I'm concerned is an understatement, I'm practically despondent," says Kevin Frost, CEO of amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which was born at the height of the 1980s crisis when the disease first emerged.
"Our hope is that corporate America will step into the vacuum of leadership on this and other public health issues."
Frost says at worst, a lack of government support for both HIV/AIDS research and relief efforts such as PEPFAR (the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) could erase the possibility of vanquishing the disease by 2030.
"AIDS in the U.S. is a manageable disease, but elsewhere millions still die, which is why organizations like (RED) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are so important," he says. "On some level, I'm envious of what (RED) has done, and it's down in part to partnering with juggernauts such as Apple."
When (RED) debuted in 2006, Apple funneled some of the proceeds from a red iPod Nano to the organization, which at the time was trying to reduce the number of babies around the world — 1,200 a day — born with the HIV virus.
Over the past decade, Apple grew the scope of its (RED)-branded hardware and software offerings. To date, proceeds gathered by the sale of Apple products account for one-third of (RED)'s $360 million haul since its inception. Today, some 400 babies are born daily with HIV.
"The stakes are still high, 37 million people still have HIV/AIDS," says Dugan. "If you look at the globe, it's still a modern-day plague. But it's preventable and it could disappear in our lifetime. Our most immediate goal is to eradicate mother-to-child transmission by 2020, most of which is in Africa."
Cook leans forward and leans his elbows on the conference room table: "Your education shouldn't depend on your zip code, and similarly your ability to live past your first birthday shouldn't depend on where you're born."
Cook, who took over from the late Steve Jobs in 2011, hasn't been shy about confronting pressing issues of the day.
He was front and center in defying government-led efforts to unlock an iPhone that was owned by one of the San Bernardino killers. And perhaps not surprisingly, Cook, who is gay, has been particularly visible on LBGTQ rights issues, coming forward to denounce Indiana and Arkansas state laws that were viewed as discriminatory.
Some critics contend that Cook's stance domestically rings hollow when being gay is illegal in about a fifth of the 100-plus countries Apple does business in. And others suggest that taking such a stand helps boost sales with like-minded consumers, especially tech-hungry Millennials who gravitate toward companies that take a position on issues they value.
Cook shrugs off such talk.
"We'll always help the most people through our products, because they empower people to do great things themselves," he says. "But this (RED) partnership allows us to touch a group of people we normally wouldn't. Sub-Saharan Africa is not a big marketplace for us. This is about trying to lift people up."
Might Apple — one of the best known brands on the planet with a market value of nearly $600 billion, a third of which is holds in cash — use its considerable consumer muscle to tackle new social issues in the coming year? Cook suggests that his company may well become as known for its stands on matters of societal importance as its popular technology gadgets.
"We haven't shied away from being visible on a number of topics, and if it's something in our wheelhouse, we'll always be visible and stand up to protect as well as advance people's rights," he says. "Every generation has a responsibility of expanding the definition of those rights, to move forward. So we'll very much continue to do that."