Tag Archives: consumer goods

Chinese NGO Claims Apple Supply Chain Sustainability is ‘Rotten to the Core’. Will Consumers Agree?

2 Sep

Photo by i.hoffman under CC License

Here we go again.  Six months ago, I presented my thoughts about a report by Chinese NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) that leveled complaints against the IT/Electronics industry and the overall performance of nearly 30 major manufacturers and their respective key parts suppliers.  The report focused on “the openness of IT firms and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations at suppliers”.  Concerns were raised in the report regarding levels of environmental toxins and pollutants being discharged in rivers and streams and into air sheds.

Worker complaints about unsafe working conditions and acute health problems were presented.  The IPE gave opportunities to every company referenced in the report to initiate an open and two-way dialogue, and most did …except Apple Electronics.  According to the report, Apple was more secretive about its supply chain than almost every other American company operating in the China.  Apple came up among the laggards among 29 major electronics and IT firms in a transparency study drawn up by a coalition of China’s leading environmental groups.

These are the iPad and iPod guys for crying out loud!  The evolutionary wizards who have shaped and fundamentally changed the way that most consumers behave, work, interact and get on with their daily lives.  Those guys who at one point this summer became the wealthiest company in the United States…this before iconic CEO Steve Jobs retired.

Apple- Skinned Again

Following the early 2011 report, the IPE performed five more months of research and field investigations and reported that “the pollution discharge from this enormous industrial empire has been expanding and spreading throughout its supply chain, seriously encroaching on the local communities and their environment… the volume of hazardous waste produced by suspected Apple Inc. suppliers was especially large and some had failed to properly dispose of their hazardous waste.”

The IPE reported (rather colorfully I might add) that 27 suspected suppliers to Apple had known environmental problems.  The IPE noted that in Apples ‘2011 Supplier Responsibility Report’, “where core violations were discovered from the 36 audits, not a single violation was based on environmental pollution. The public has no way of knowing if Apple is even aware of these problems. Again, the public has no way of knowing if Apple has pushed their suppliers to resolve these issues. Therefore, despite Apple’s seemingly rigorous audits, pollution is still expanding and spreading along with the supply chain.”

IPE reported that “during the past year and four months, a group of NGOs made attempts to push Apple along with 28 other IT brands to face these problems and the methods with which they may be resolved. Of these 29 brands, many recognised the seriousness of the pollution problem within the IT industry, with Siemens, Vodafone, Alcatel, Philips and Nokia being amongst the first batch of brands to start utilizing the publicly available information. These companies then began to overcome the spread of pollution created by global production and sourcing, and thus turn their sourcing power into a driving force for China’s pollution control. However, Apple has become a special case. Even when faced with specific allegations regarding its suppliers, the company refuses to provide answers and continues to state that “it is our long-term policy not to disclose supplier information.

The IPE offered its opinion that “Apple has already made a choice; to stand on the wrong side, to take advantage of the loopholes in developing countries’ environmental management systems, and to be closely associated with polluting factories.”

IPE concluded that Apple needed to own up and be accountable for its supply chain for the following four reasons:

  1. “… any company that produces a large amount of hardware must bear the responsibility for the environmental and social costs incurred during the manufacturing process.
  2. Secondly, the suppliers who violate the standards for levels of pollutants emitted and who ignore environmental concerns and workers’ health do these things with the aim of cutting costs and maximizing profits.
  3. Thirdly, Apple Inc. understands that when passing the blame for social responsibility it can be difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the general public…; and
  4. Fourthly, many people do not understand that Apple and other brands’ outsourcing of production is not the same as ordinary purchasing behavior. Various sources of information show that Apple is deeply involved in supply chain management—from the choice of materials to use to the control of clean rooms in the production process.”

So What’s Wrong With Apple?

Apples image problem appears to be getting worse before it gets better and it may be more than just a public relations problem; and it’s not just in China that Apple is facing criticisms.  Apple, like most consumer electronics manufacturers is a major user of highly sought after precious minerals, many of them associated with conflict areas (so-called ‘conflict minerals’). Apple in fact sources tin from 125 suppliers that use 43 smelters worldwide.  That’s an awful big challenge from a supply chain management perspective. But Apple was still a bit slow to step up like other key IT companies like Dell and Intel and collaborate with the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition in developing a framework to address conflict mineral traceability.

Further complicating the issue is the sheer size of Apples supply chain and the general difficulty that comes in managing dispersed multi-tired supply chains in other countries.  In an excellent piece published in GreenBiz this week, Environmental Defense Fund Project Manager Andrew Hutson suggested that  “If you’ve got an office in Shenzhen or Hong Kong, it’s very  hard to keep tabs on the perhaps thousands of factories you have across  China in any given moment”.  The article went on to discuss how scrutiny can sometimes  lead contractors to move factories to more remote areas, farther away  from watchdogs, suggesting that “the sheer distance from headquarters created by chasing low-cost labor  to developing countries can effectively reduce accountability”. While cheap labor in far off lands certainly has its benefits, clearly it has its disadvantages and Apple is paying the price.

Many people have asked me over the past half-year why Apple is being uncooperative or secretive.  Well, “secrecy” has always been part of the Apple mystique, but of course so has evolutionary and disruptive innovation. The problem is when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainability, transparency is the name of the game, not secrecy.  In this “WikiLeaks” world of ours, mystique only gets companies mired deeper into areas of suspicion and distrust.

Photo via Michael Holden under Flikr CC License

But perhaps there is more to the issue to noodle on. Is it entirely possible that Apple isn’t ignoring the problem, but rather its supplier network is just too big to handle and they lack the tools, systems and technologies to perform adequate supplier training and oversight?  Or is it that Chinese regulatory agencies also lack the resources or institutional oversight necessary to monitor compliance over in-country industrial manufacturers that service multiple consumer brands?  Or is it possible that as consumers our insatiable appetite for Apple products is partly responsible for creating such high demand that Apple must reach out to hundreds if not thousands of suppliers to fulfill its orders and keep Apple product lovers happy?   Or is the problem a combination of rampant, unsustainable consumerism, poor regulatory oversight, a supply chain ‘gone wild’, AND a deviated moral center on the part of Apple (as the IPE suggests).  You see, its complicated and maybe, just maybe, we should all take a close look in the mirror and question our own culpability in this mess.

For any of my dedicated readers, I am by no means being an apologist for Apple.  You all know where I have stood in the past by constructively calling for Apple to step up and be as evolutionary on corporate social responsibility and sustainability matters as it is with its products.  I noted in my prior post the many key steps that Apple can and must take to effectively make a difference in its supply chain.  In addition Treehugger writer extraordinaire Jaymi Heimbuch offered some outstanding advice to new CEO Tim Cook, not the least of which was “requiring transparency in the supply chain and being more direct with suppliers about standards”.  My advice is simple Mr. Cook: show humility, take responsibility, and act swiftly and collaboratively.

Rest assured there are more activist organizations shaking Apples tree.  And what I fear (as Apple should too), is that one day all that shaking will bring that big old tree down.

A Systems Perspective on Sustainability, Supply Chain Management- The Intelligent Choice

18 May

As we approach the mid-point in 2011, the tea leaves of the economic recovery have ‘sustainability’ in supply chain planning and management firming up as a key “rebuilding” block in company activities.  Two recent studies from two different continents bear that notion out.  First, consultancy BearingPoint Ireland has released a report which says two-thirds of companies surveyed in Europe believe that a green supply chain is a strategic priority. The report, entitled Green Supply Chain: from awareness to action, is the fourth of a series of “supply chain monitors” from the private consultancy.  The study was conducted among about 600 European decision-makers by Novamétrie between 2010 and 2011, with a position within Supply Chain, Sustainable Development or Industrial Divisions.   Key industries captured includes: consumer goods, transportation, construction, automotive, industrial goods, retail, energy and utilities, chemicals, IT/electronics and pharmaceuticals, among others.

The goal of the report, according to the authors was to summarize “the evolution over the past two years in terms of mindset, maturity and actions efficiency [and] explores the green Supply Chain practices in Europe, in order to identify the significant improvements in the most representative industries. The results clearly underline a growing interest of executive managements in developing products with a low environmental impact. What was seen as a constraint is now considered as an opportunity.”

Executive Management Mandates, Reputational Risk Management Are Key Drivers

A notable “inflexion” occurred between this survey round and prior surveys.  For instance, in 2008, findings suggested that supply chain ‘greening’ was primarily being driven by important environmental and regulatory developments (such as REACH, WEE, RoHS or the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme).  Now, with compliance programs associated with these initiatives firmly entrenched or in initial development, the drivers appear to be shifting toward meeting internal executive management commitments and addressing reputation management and/or consumer demands.  In other words, according to the report, “Environmental actions presently address new constraints and motives, which are more mature and integrated to companies’ decision processes.” Key findings from BearingPoint’s report include:

  • 70% of surveyed companies declare that green Supply Chain is a true economical lever.
  • For 47% of the companies, the return on investment of a green Supply Chain is reached within 3 years.
  • More than half of European companies now use environmental criteria to assess their Supply Chain performance: share of recycled packaging material, CO2 emissions.
  • Two-thirds of companies adopted or plan to adopt a green policy for their purchases.
  • Manufacturers must be able to measure and reduce their carbon footprint if they are to succeed on export markets
  • Over half of the respondents in the survey said they did not renew contracts with suppliers who did not respect their green charter.
  • Buyers are preferably choosing suppliers with certified processes such as ISO 14001.

According to Bearing Points recent press release, Irish Exporters Association chief executive, John Whelan, said: “There is no question that Irish businesses which produce transparently environmentally positive products, delivered by carbon neutral logistics services will succeed on international markets.”

Sustainability Drivers Both Inside and Out the ‘Four Walls’

In yet another study, Prime Advantage, a buying consortium for midsized manufacturers, unveiled its seventh (2011) Prime Advantage Group Outlook (GO) Survey.  This survey queried small and midsized North American manufacturers, and found that more than 80 percent of North American companies surveyed indicated that they developing more sustainable or energy-efficient products largely driven by customer requirements and compliance regulations.  According to the study, “the biggest driving factors behind these changes are customer requirements (80 percent), followed by compliance regulations (53 percent) and shareholder directives (12 percent). In addition, 57 percent of respondents have also started buying more sustainable indirect products for internal consumption.”

A Systems Perspective Breeds Competitive Intelligence

The Bearing Point study made a statement that caught my eye and for which I wholeheartedly agree.  Identifying with a systems-based mindset that recognizes the intrinsic and realized value sustainability-focused business management is a critical fulcrum for green supply chain practices. I noted in a post last fall that The Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution author Peter Senge argued (in the October Harvard Business Review) that to make progress on environmental issues, organizations must understand that they’re part of a larger system. Senge also makes a great point that companies will be in a better competitive position if they understand the larger system that they operate within and to work with people you haven’t worked with before.

I’ve cited companies like Hewlett-Packard and Danisco as supply chain innovators in their product sectors.  These companies, among other innovators like Intel, P&G, IBM, GE and others, who’ve viewed supply chain in a systematic or holistic manner, organizations successfully have been applying that “big-picture thinking” needed to be truly innovative. Doing so can create leverage points that companies never realized they had before with their suppliers.

Clearly, the environmental (and often the social) footprint of a product extends beyond the four walls of the company who “brands” the product.  This footprint extends upstream and downstream, and must capture, control or influence inputs and outputs all along the way.  Some of the largest footprints (like energy and carbon) lie upstream or in the final hands of the consumers.  This is why leading companies are rethinking the global extents of their supply chains, exploring local sourcing options and implementing other operational efficiencies.

The results of the recent surveys indicate that companies in a wide number of sectors are waking up to the fact that sustainability is more than business innovation- it’s business intelligence.