Secretive Apple Under Fire from Environmental Groups

A report from a coalition of Chinese environmental groups attacks Apple for excessive secrecy in its supply chain. The company was judged among the least transparent of the 29 tech firms included.

Apple trumpets its environmental policy, and claims to take extensive measures to monitor and regulate working conditions at suppliers’ plants. Last year, its Supplier Responsibility Progress Report (PDF) revealed that some had been found to have employed underaged workers. Because of the carefully preserved opacity of the company’s supply chain, however, its own audits cannot be subjected to independent verification. From The Guardian:

“This attitude means it is impossible to have any public supervision over their supply chain. Without that how can we trust them?” said Ma Jun of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs. “When environmental violations become public knowledge, they should not use commercial confidentiality as an excuse for silence. This is different from other leading brands.”

Hewlett Packard, British Telecom, Samsung, Sony, Siemens and Alcatel were credited as being the most responsive to third-party inquiries about alleged environmental violations.

“Apple can say it is completely ‘green’ because it is a brand with no factory, but if it doesn’t manage its supply chain, these are just empty words,” said Ma Jun …. “Far from being the best on planet, it is bottom among 29 IT brands. Apple should be a leader. If it can move on this, it can change the whole industry.”

The hope that pressure exerted on Apple will eventually affect the tech industry as a whole echoes that of Greenpeace’s 2007 campaign for A Greener Apple:

It’s not about bruising Apple’s image, Apple should be an environmental leader. We want Apple to be at the forefront of green technology, and to clearly show other companies how to do it the right way.

Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs later announced the phasing out of toxic chemicals and a more aggressive approach to recycling, a shift still hailed as a success story on the front page of Greenpeace’s website.

At present, legal responsibility for injury or sickness brought about by poor working conditions is limited to the suppliers themselves, but this may soon change. From Global Times:

Dong Baohua, a Shanghai-based labor lawyer, told the Global Times that there is no regulation in Chinese labor laws that mandates that contractors must take joint liability for compensating workers who suffer from occupational diseases in their supply chain if the suppliers and contractors are independent and legal employers.

“These workers could seek help from global organizations that monitor working conditions, but the process is lengthy and costly,” he said.

What might give the suffering workers a slice of hope is that amendments to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases will be taken into consideration by national legislators this year.

That may, to some extent, help solve problems that arise when diagnosing occupational injuries.

Apple’s secrecy has come under scrutiny before, when a Foxconn employee killed himself after suffering alleged mistreatment by security guards when an iPhone prototype in his care went missing.