Tag Archives: consumerism

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.

What’s Consumer and Business Responsibility Got to Do with Economic Prosperity & Sustainability?

7 Jun

The past few weeks I have been wrapped up in some circle of life issues involving my aunt and mother, so writing has taken a back seat.  During this time,  I have been observing the dissolution and redistribution of my 91-year-old aunts’ household and supported the challenge of deciding which belongings should go temporarily with my 86-year-old mother to assisted living.   My current role as a duly appointed member of the ”sandwich generation” is fulfilled too when my teenage daughter asks to go on yet another trip to the mall to view the latest fashions.  All these events have brought to mind the material possessions that we accumulate over the course of our lives, the ingrained value we place on “things” and how they somehow give us more pleasure or worth.

Ironically, last week I also had the chance to participate in a number of one on one and group discussions revolving around the role(s) that we as consumers have in managing resources, waste generation and sustainable development.  I weighed in on the responsibility that consumers have in the 21st century supply chain (related to conflict minerals), just as I had mentioned in a keynote speech to the European Petrochemical Association this March.  Other participants reflected on how individuals bear a high degree of responsibility for the explosive growth in electronic and other consumer product waste.

What is abundantly clear is that we (as consumers) are all accountable for our own individuals actions in deciding what we buy, how much, how long we keep and maintain what we do have, and what we replace it with.  From cell phones, to cars, to clothes and home products, Western society has lost the passion for “thrift”.  I believe, like my parents generation did, that thrift is one of the key principles that built this great nation, but it has seemed to have gotten shoved aside in the name of consumerism and  growth,  which by the way is different than prosperity.  Of course Keynesian economists will take me to the woodshed about the meaning of  thrift in growing an economy. According to an article by the CATO Institute, ” The paradox of thrift refers to how–in the Keynesian model of the economy–an increase in saving reduces production and employment. This supposedly occurs because a decrease in spending leads to a decrease in employment, which leads to a further decrease in spending, which leads to a further decrease in employment, which leads to a yet further decrease in spending, and so on. Thus, if people try to increase their saving, there will supposedly be a decrease in spending, and a fall in employment and production.”

Prosperity versus Growth?

“Economic growth is supposed to deliver prosperity. Higher incomes should mean better choices, richer lives, an improved quality of life for us all. That at least is the conventional wisdom. But things haven’t always turned out that way.” 

So states Professor Tim Jackson (Director of the Research group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment (RESOLVE) at the University of Surrey) in a very important and compelling work, Prosperity without Growth.  The research was commissioned in 2009 by the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission and puts in focus the rather serious nature of what “progress” really is in society and the norms on which its measured.

Courtesy Christian Science Monitor

The economic slump of the last three years has also sharpened this debate over whether more is better, whether growth in consumer goods and spending really supports a sustainable economy and whether the environment and human rights are placed in harm’s way in the name of economic growth.  As Jackson notes, “The profit motive stimulates a continual search by producers for newer, better or cheaper products and services. This process of ‘creative destruction’, according to the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is what drives economic growth forwards.”   The past several years have prompted a series of key questions that I’ll throw out here for thought:

  1. Has quantity in life trumped quality in life?
  2. Does producing more and having more truly lead to a prosperous economy and long-term sustainability?
  3. Does producing more and having more truly lead to a prosperous economy and long-term sustainability? Can we still flourish?
  4.  Does having more truly make us happier, lead more productive lives and allows us as a society to be the better social animals that we are wired to be?

All tough questions, and way more to ponder in the limits of this one post for sure.  But Professor Jackson’s commission report and follow-up book on the subject mirrored what was reflected the conversations that participated in last week.   Jackson himself admits that “Prosperity has undeniable material dimensions.  It’s perverse to talk about things going well where there is inadequate food and shelter (as is the case for billions in the developing world). But it is also plain to see that the simple equation of quantity with quality, of more with better, is false in general.”

I’ve no doubt that economic growth is vital for stimulating an economy that appears to be headed toward a dreaded “double dip” recession.  However, what is critical for policy makers, economists, the financial community and electorate to grapple with is what types of investments are best to lead us out of this morass and into a future that is stable and prosperous.  Jackson, among others has argued that “targeting that investment carefully towards energy security, low-carbon infrastructures and ecological protection offers multiple benefits [in other words a more sustainable, green economy]. These benefits include:

• freeing up resources for household spending and productive investment by reducing energy and material costs

• reducing our reliance on imports and our exposure to the fragile geopolitics of energy supply

• providing a much-needed boost to employment in the expanding ‘environmental industries’ sector

• making progress towards demanding global carbon reduction targets

• protecting valuable ecological assets and improving the quality of our living environment for generations to come.”

Producers vs. Consumers- Who Holds the Key?

So am I arguing in favor of a reaching a “steady state economy” with no growth?  To be honest, I’m not sure at this point.  There have been debates over this concept for generations, and I am no economist.  Jackson himself admits that no clear model exists for achieving economic stability without at least some measure of consumptive growth.  While goods producers have control over what they make, where they source their goods to make the things we buy, the “making” side of the economy is but one side of the debate that is in play here.  There is also the “using” side of the debate that drives deep in the social fabric and psyche of the consuming public. We as consumers can shape the debate around and effects that can have on the products that are made, mass-produced, sold and consumed.   This is perhaps the toughest nut to crack, because it’s the consumer that drives the demand that in turn drives production, which then drives consumption of resources, which of course determines the stresses on the environment.  You see, we hold the key…as the old Pogo cartoon says, “We have met the enemy and it’s us”.

In a recent article in the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, Tim Jackson again weighs in on the strong psychological attachment that humans by nature have to material things and their feelings about the environment.  “People do indeed hold deeply felt motivations to protect the environment. Occasionally they can even save money by doing so. But powerful psychological forces still hold them in thrall. The creeping evolution of social norms and the sheer force of habit conspire to lock us into expanding material aspirations.”

You see, letting go of things that make us feel good is hard.  But the instant gratification that comes with these choices has undoubtedly led us all down a slippery slope, which only we can muster the power to crawl back up.  But only if we make sound, greener choices that recognize a balance between consumption, thrift and ecological limits.

These questions and issues, among others will be reflected upon to some degree this week at Sustainable Brands ’11 in Monterey CA.  I’ll be there also with over 750 other sustainability, corporate social responsibility, consumer marketing/ branding and industry professionals to learn, communicate and exchange ideas.  Look for my occasional tweets (@DRMeyer1) and observations as the event rolls along.

Consumerism & Supply Chain Meets Sustainability in the Chemical Industry

10 Mar

Next week, I’ll have the honor being the dinner keynote speaker at the European Petrochemical Associations 2nd Interactive Supply/Demand Chain Workshop in Brussels, Belgium. This years’ theme is “21st Century Supply Chains for the Chemical Industry”.  The topic is timely given how there’s been so much talk concerning over-consumption, consumer behavior, corporate social responsibility and increased growth of sustainability in manufacturing and supply chain management.  And the chemical industry indeed plays a large role in much of what we consume.  It reminds me of the old Monsanto commercial…”without chemicals, life itself would be impossible”.  It’s just that these days, chemicals in the global marketplace appear to be getting ‘greener’.

Consumer Demand for Sustainable Products

Consumer demand appears to be contributing (at least in part) to some of the gains in eco-friendly and sustainability focused design and manufacturing progress that’s being made in the global marketplace.  There is certainly a higher degree of consumer awareness and understanding of the need to make healthier, socially conscious and eco-friendly products.  However, the Green Confidence Index, a monthly online survey (~2,500 Americans by GreenBiz.com) noted last year that U.S. consumers cite price and performance as the principal reasons for not buying more green products- the flat growth was partially attributed to stale economy.  The slow economic growth of 2010 appeared to also be slowing widespread innovation by small to medium-sized businesses focused on green manufacturing.

In contrast, the consumer business disconnect appears to be alive and well in other parts of the world. In fact, it’s my thinking that businesses are significantly underestimating consumer interest and awareness in sustainability and green issues.  For instance, consumer demand for sustainably manufactured or ‘green’ products and services in China, India and Singapore are outstripping supply (according to an independent survey conducted by TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific). I’ve no doubt the same is the case in Europe, often considered way ahead in terms of consumer sensitivity regarding sustainability. The TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific found that:

  1. 84% of consumers prepared to pay an average 27% premium for green products, services.
  2. Only 43% of business believes consumers to be willing to pay more  or even produce or trade green products in China, India and Singapore.
  3. 74% of businesses either do not have a policy or guideline to  minimize environmental in place or are failing to clearly communicate  they have one.

Chemical Industry Response to Sustainability and Supply Chain Impacts

Manufacturers in the chemical industry and peripheral services have progressively been responding to end-consumer and customer driven pressures. The emergence of ‘green, (or sustainable) chemistry” and restricted materials initiatives over the past half-dozen or so years have propelled the chemical industry and global consumer products manufacturers to rethink how products are made, consumer health effects and long-term eco-impacts.  Traditionally, supply chain management of hazardous products has focused more on reducing the exposure to hazards than on hazard elimination. The advent of green chemistry has provided opportunities to refine supply chain management, including procurement policies and practices, by developing safer products. Redesigned products and processes can dramatically reduce the risks encountered in manufacturing, storage, transportation and waste control by mitigating the hazards associated with them. From a risk management perspective, since it is fundamentally better to mitigate hazards than to try to protect against them, green chemistry has proven to be highly beneficial and contributes by default to greener supply chain management and supply chain-related risk management

Many manufacturers have risen to the occasion in recent years to drive green chemistry and supply chain management to lessen their eco-footprints and support development of safer products.  Global chemical manufacturer BASF chooses its carriers, service providers and suppliers not just on the basis of price, but 0n their performance in the fields of environmental and social responsibility when making our sourcing decisions. In addition to following the internationally recognized Responsible Care program requirements for environmental, health and safety, BASF has established product stewardship goals designed to reduce its overall eco-footprint.

“What counts for us is acting responsibly throughout the entire supply chain because we want to build stable and sustainable relationships with our business partners. This is why we choose carriers, service providers and suppliers not just on the basis of price, but also include their performance in the fields of environmental and social responsibility when making our decisions.”

The company also maintains several key features of its global supply chain management program, including:

  1. Safe transportation to our customers
  2. Evaluate and support partner companies
  3. Monitoring of suppliers
  4. Product types and sources important
  5. Providing advice for better services
  6. China: sustainability in the value chain
  7. Minimum social standards for suppliers

Meanwhile, DuPont’s Mission is focused on “creation of shareholder and societal value while we reduce the environmental footprint along the value chains in which we operate”.  Throughout the production-supplier-consumer value chain, DuPont strives through end to end supply chain communication to 1) manage risk and be adaptable; 2) gain efficiencies & profitable flexibility; and 3) enable sustainable product performance and verification through its entire supply chain. Sustainability efforts are tracked and managed for continual improvement through a combination of business management integration approaches and supply chain design and operation.

On the retail side, Walmart has asserted itself in the past several years, by clarifying its stance about reducing toxics in products.  In response, American Chemistry Council members have pledged to lower GHG intensity by 18% by 2012 using 1990 as a base-reporting year and has exceeded that initial commitment and has reduced carbon intensity by 36%.  In addition, Dow Chemical’s is working to harmonize the Walmart goal with its own sustainability objectives of decreasing its environmental footprint and maximizing product performance throughout the supply chain.

“Given the challenges associated with running a global chemical manufacturing supply chain, we have been focused on sustainability for a long time – not just our own but also how we address sustainability with our customers and our customers’ customers,” – Anne Wallin, director of sustainable chemistry and life cycle assessment at Dow Chemical.

Logistics Providers Stepping Up to the Challenge

Among supply chain and logistics businesses, the 2009 14th Annual 3PL Study found that shippers want to create more sustainable, environmentally conscious supply chains. The survey found a need to strike a balance between labor & transportation costs.  Surveyed 3PL’s also noted the market value of carbon-reducing processes, compressed production cycles, and less carbon intensive transportation modes that beat the competition.

Most recently, American Shipper just published its Environmental Sustainability Benchmark Study of over 200 shipping companies.  According to the study, “survey respondents clearly see environmental sustainability has an emerging impact and increasing importance in their supply chain. On a scale of one to five (one lowest; five highest) the study average ranked sustainability as 2.42 two or three years ago, 3.41 today, 3.95 in five years, and 4.17 in 10 years”. Interestingly, customer demands, at 25% percent (see graphic below) are on a par with company policies as a leading driver of environmental sustainability adoption.  Most respondents saw potential return on investment (ROI) although ROI was clearly a potential barrier to sustainability adoption.

In response, leading 3PLs and fourth party logistics providers (4PL’s) are focusing more attention on business practices that are intentionally drive business efficiencies , but (perhaps unintentionally) enhance overall environmental performance, namely:

  • In-Store Logistics
  • Collaborative warehousing & infrastructure
  • Reverse Logistics
  • Demand Fluctuation Management
  • Energy/Fuel Use Management

End consumer preference certainly has its place in deriving sustainability in the 21st century, but as I see it, the chemical industry and its shipping and logistics partners are showing proactive leadership in embedding sustainability in the “source, make, deliver and return” product value chain.

My next post will explore how competitive collaboration, or “co-opetition”, is making resurgence in the supply chain sustainability conversation.  In the meantime, I’m looking forward to next week’s conference and all the hospitality that Brussels has to offer.