"Apple Has Made No Progress at All" on Environment

In January, a group of Chinese environmental NGOs including Friends of Nature and IPE ranked Apple last out of 29 tech companies in terms of environmental transparency. While the company’s own audits have revealed a number of problems such as suppliers’ employment of underage workers, its opacity makes independent verification impossible. When the 2011 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report was released in February, furthermore, it paid relatively little attention to environmental issues.

Consequently, the group chose to focus exclusively on Apple in its follow-up report (PDF), published today. The report attempts to penetrate the secrecy surrounding Apple’s suppliers, identifying them and monitoring their environmental impact. From chinadialogue:

Meiko Electronics of Wuhan, central China, is a printed circuit board manufacturing subsidiary of Japanese firm Meiko Electronics. Its major customers include Apple, Motorola and Siemens. In April 2011, staff from IPE and Friends of Nature’s Wuhan branch went to investigate pollution at the plant. They found a 150-metre ditch running from the east side of the facility to Nantaizi Lake, filled with a milky-white liquid. For dozens of metres the water of Nantaizi was a grey-white colour, covered with white foam and dark floating objects. This polluted water flows directly into the Yangtze River.

In June, lawyer Zeng Xiangbin from Friends of Nature’s Wuhan branch and the Pony Testing Company tested a sample of the liquid from the ditch. Chemical oxygen demand (also known as CODcr load) was 192 milligrams per litre: 4.8 times the Category V Environmental Surface Water Quality Standard of 40 milligrams per litre – the worst category of water quality – indicating the water was unsafe for use for any purpose. Responding to the investigation, Nantaizi Lake fish farmer Wan Zhengyou said: “My generation is drinking polluted water; the next will have only poisoned water to drink.”

Kaedar Electronics Limited and Kunshan Unimicron Electronics are located in the Jiangsu city of Kunshan, in eastern China. According to media reports, the former is an Apple supplier and the latter is a suspected supplier. In April 2011, staff from IPE and Li Chunhua from Nanjing Green Stone visited the area. Locals told them that the foul-smelling gases from the plant sometimes left them unable to open their windows and woke them up at night. Eight-year-old Tong Haiyi said to the investigators: “Sometimes when I come back and study I get a really sore chest, and when [my mother comes] to pick me up I feel really dizzy. And sometimes there’s a really strange smell in class.” His mother told the team that he often suffered from headaches, dizziness and nosebleeds.

Polluting suppliers are far from unique to Apple, and the company has often been targeted at least partly for strategic purposes. As Ma Jun of IPE said in January, “Apple should be a leader. If it can move on this, it can change the whole industry.” This echoed comments from Greenpeace during its 2007 campaign for A Greener Apple: “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.”

But Apple is singled out for other reasons as well: its uncooperative and even obstructive dealings with environmental groups, and its failure to act visibly and verifiably on known problems. Another post at chinadialogue, on the other hand, reviews actions taken by other companies in response to earlier reports’ findings:

Since contacting 29 global IT companies ahead of its first published report in April 2010, IPE has had dialogue with most of them. Some responded right away; others required more nudging. Initially slow to respond, Siemens has since used IPE’s database to track its more than 10,000 suppliers in China.

“[Siemens] developed software to automatically compare their list of suppliers with our list of polluters and violators,” said Ma. When Siemens identified problems, it required violators to take corrective action and to make public disclosure about what went wrong and how they tried to fix problems. Vodafone, BT, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Lenovo have also been fairly proactive, Ma said. Non-IT brands including GE, Nike, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Unilever have also been using the database, said Ma.

US retail chain Wal-mart – another company that, like Nike, seems to have achieved a significant turnaround in its reputation – has been an assiduous user of the database, said Ma. “Every month, Wal-Mart is comparing their list and our list,” he said. When it identifies problem suppliers, it gives them a certain time frame to deal with the problem. If they fail to do so, Wal-mart pushes them to go through a third-party audit under the supervision of NGOs. That process identifies problems and requires corrective actions.

In an interview with chinadialogue, Ma Jun laments Apple’s lack of responsiveness:

Liu Jianqiang: You published your first report on Apple in January. In February Apple released a document admitting that workers in its supply chain had suffered industrial injuries. Has Apple improved its behaviour since then?

Ma Jun: Apple’s behaviour hasn’t improved at all. It has admitted there are issues in its supply chain, but it hasn’t made any adjustments to its policy, maintaining that “it is our long-term policy not to disclose supplier information” and ignoring questions from environmental groups. Injured workers wrote to Apple three times, but got no response at all. We’ve read that Apple progress report carefully. It says that 36 suppliers had “major violations”, but some of those are taking high agency fees or telling workers what to do during audits. The pollution issues we found are a serious threat to local communities – yet not one of those was included.

Personally I feel that the “black box” audits aren’t doing any good ….

LJ: Have you been in touch with Apple during your investigation?

MJ: We wrote to Apple last week, asking it to confirm: whether or not the companies we mention in the report are suppliers; whether or not Apple is aware of their breaches; and whether or not Apple knows about the repeated complaints. But there was no response. After the poisoning incident last year, we sent a list of questions to Apple in August. Apple didn’t reply until November – and then not to Chinese NGOs, but to an American NGO – saying it could not confirm if the company was a supplier, and that Apple needed the environmental groups to provide more evidence. The NGO responded that a lot of publicly available information showed it was an Apple supplier, and Apple replied that “it is our long-term policy not to disclose supplier information”. And so the door was closed.

There has been some small sign of change in Apple’s attitude, however, according to the Financial Times:

In a highly unusual move for Apple, the company changed that stance just hours ahead of the report’s publication, inviting Mr Ma to start a dialogue on his allegations. Mr Ma said Apple told him some of the factories on his list were not the US company’s suppliers, but did not specify which ones.

Apple has promised greater engagement with NGOs before, pledging in the Supplier Responsibility Progress Report (PDF, p.22) to “collaborate with industry groups and NGOs in China to address key issues” (though the issues it mentions specifically relate to working conditions rather than the environment). But this new hint at a different direction may be linked to the recent change in Apple’s leadership, following founder Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO last week. His successor Tim Cook has been more engaged than Jobs with matters in China; according to the Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, for example, he personally visited Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant following the infamous string of suicides there (PDF, p. 18). In one widely retold anecdote, Cook tells a colleague that “someone should really be in China driving” the company’s response to a problem and, only thirty minutes later, asks him why he isn’t already on his way there.

GlobalPost reports hopes that the change of leadership at Apple will indeed mark a turning point in its approach to corporate responsibility:

In phone interviews this week, former workers who got sick at the Wintek factory in Suzhou while making touchscreens said they hope Apple’s new chief, Tim Cook, will step up and investigate their situation. They also hope Apple will conduct better audits of its supplier factories and catch problems earlier.

Jia Jingchuan, a factory worker who made the personal appeal to Jobs earlier this year, said he’s not too optimistic. Jia said he continues to have health problems. Because he finally left the factory, he no longer has medical insurance but continues to spent out-of-pocket for supplements to help his nagging health problems ….

“Steve Jobs was indifferent to our poisoning and evaded his responsibility,” Jia said in a separate statement released by the Hong Kong labor group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavoir (SACOM), which called on the new Apple CEO to address the situation ….

“The massive poisoning at Wintek is a serious breach of the labor law and Apple’s code of conduct,” the group said in a statement.

“Corporate social responsibility is no more than rhetoric if there is no remedy to the workers for the code infringement. SACOM demands Apple under the leadership of Tim Cook has dialogue with the workers as soon as possible.”

But Ma Jun doubts that Apple’s corporate culture will change suddenly, and Cook’s history in building and running the company’s current supply chain may suggest that he is unlikely to start thinking different now.

Sources:

The Other Side of Apple II: Pollution Spreads through Apple’s Supply Chain (PDF) – Friends of Nature, Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, Green Beagle, Envirofriends, Green Stone Environmental Action Network
Apple Supplier Responsibility: 2011 Progress Report (PDF) – Apple
Apple: back under the spotlight – chinadialogue
Can IT clean up its act? – chinadialogue
“Apple has made no progress at all” – chinadialogue
Apple attacked over pollution in China – FT.com
China: Apple workers react to Steve Jobs’ resignation – GlobalPost