Tag Archives: pollution

Can Apple Redeem Itself on Supply Chain Sustainability? Taking a Cue on Accountability from Nike’s Playbook

3 Feb

NOTE: Portions of this piece originally appeared as a guest column in Sustainable Business Oregon

Last week, on the way to a business meeting in downtown Portland I tuned into the local sports radio station.  Nationally syndicated sports commentator Dan Patrick (“DP”) was providing his one minute Above the Noise segment.  The focus was on if, how and when sports icons that have fallen from grace (due to an off the field indiscretion) they could ever redeem themselves in the public court of opinion.  And could they ever regain public acceptance to be ‘marketable’ commodities again.  Think player product endorsements.  Think Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest- well the list is WAY to lengthy to cover here, but you get the idea.  Most that have regained endorsement status (like Bryant) have either redeemed themselves through community service and on field performance, but often the public-at-large (er, consumers) just forget.  The past indiscretions have faded from the tabloids.

So I got to thinking that this sounded very familiar when it comes to companies (manufacturers and service industries in particular), and the ways in which they address sustainability matters.  I am thinking of manufacturers who have made environmentally impactful products, and willingly or knowingly conducted socially irresponsible or possibly unethical business practices that have led to public backlash.  And I thought about how some have been able to successfully “redeem” themselves and regain a positive marketplace reputation, while others never quite recovered.

Since this past week Apple was in the news, I thought DP’s radio op-ed was a perfect parallel.  According to a report issued by anti-pollution activists in China, Apple is more secretive about its supply chain than almost every other American company operating in the country. 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.  The reports focused on “the openness of IT firms and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations at suppliers”.  Though Apple is known in the industry for the secrecy it wraps around its newest product offerings, the “mystery of its supply chain is more a matter of covering up than preventing leaks”, the report stated. The report claimed that Apple’s suppliers have been involved in breaches of environmental regulation, including major waste discharge violations in recent years at several Chinese firms that are believed to be  part of Apple’s supply chain.  To be fair, Nokia, LG, SingTel, Sony and Ericsson also fared poorly in the survey, but Apple stood out in how it did not address and respond to the findings.

Apples Supplier Commitment

Of course this revelation was not the first time that Apple’s supply chain management oversight (or lack thereof) has been ‘shaken to its core’. Despite Apples Supplier Code of Conduct, it appears that they are not fully conforming to their own internal commitment and policies.  An insightful post from back in mid 2009 highlighted the series of issues that Apple has had with its supply chain, from human rights violations and pollution to lax supplier oversight and unfortunate subcontractor worker suicides.  Apple itself admitted its complacency in addressing social and environmental sustainability issues in a pragmatic but resolved manner.

Nikes Redemption Story- a Work in Progress

Apples current predicament is not unlike another company that relies on a deep contractor supply chain, whose headquarters in my backyard- Nike.  In the late 1980’s reports were starting to circulate from Indonesia and Asia concerning Nikes alleged “sweatshops”.  Over the course of the 1990’s, continued exposure of unscrupulous labor and human rights practices, combined with intensive public protests and campaigns continued to hound Nike and dragged down its reputation.

By 2001, the issue erupted and Nike was stung by reports of children as young as 10 making shoes, clothing and footballs in Pakistan and Cambodia.  Phil Knight, Nikes CEO admitted the company “blew it”. Nike, like many other companies (like Nestle, PepsiCo, Wal-Mart and other consumer products manufacturers and retailers) learned the hard way that taking liberties with “social license” to operate (especially in foreign countries) has its negative financial and reputational consequences.

That’s not to say of course that all is perfect in Niketown.  But with the corporate and supply chain infrastructure now in place to monitor, validate and continually improve supplier relations and accountability, fewer violations have occurred. Nike has continued to push open innovation and environmentally focused product design with social accountability in mind.  The Ethisphere Institute named Nike as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for 2010. The Institute recognizes organizations annually that “promote ethical business standards and practices by going beyond legal minimums, introducing innovative ideas benefiting the public and forcing their competitors to follow suit.”   Also, last October, Newsweek magazine took 500 of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies and produced a 2010 Green Rankings List.  Nike, was 10th on the list, and was noted for having a strong commitment to evaluating and improving the environmental footprint of its suppliers.  They also scored a 97 in the reputation category. (Apple by the way scored 65th, with a reputation score of 71.  I guess that low score represents that missing piece in Apples iconic logo.

Stepping Up to the Plate on “Social License to Operate” and Accountability

A great research study from 2002 (from the Center for the Study of law and Society at University of California Berkeley)  highlights the steps that companies in the apparel, forest products, consumer goods, oil and energy and other highly capitalized industries have gone through to “redeem” themselves and restore brand trust.  They’ve achieved this through rigid compliance with local environmental rules, product  and environmental stewardship, verification  and proactive social engagement.

Apple needs to do the same thing and implement a proactive supplier sustainability and verification program.  As I have laid out in prior posts, companies like Nestle, Corporate Express, Danisco, Starbucks, Unilever and the apparel industry stepped up in a big way to address human rights, fair labor and sustainable development in areas in which they operate throughout the world.  So too have major electronics companies like Hewlett Packard and IBM in leveraging their supply chains in assuring that corporate sustainability performance objectives are met.   Further, in 2010 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) unveiled its ISO 26000 Corporate Social Responsibility guidance document.  In addition, two prominent organizations, UL Environment and Green Seal unveiled and vetted two sustainability focused product (GS-C1) and organization (ULE 880) standards this past year, both of which may markedly affect supply chain environmental and social behaviors in the future.  That’s not to mention the issue of conflict minerals, which strikes deep at the cell phone manufacturing sector.  Finally, the age of openness and collaboration has arrived on the heels of Wikileaks and numerous high profile reputational back breakers.

Engaging and Leveraging the Supply Chain

The most successful greening efforts in supply chains are based on value creation through the sharing of intelligence and know-how about environmental and emerging regulatory issues and emerging technologies.  Leading edge, sustainability –minded and innovative companies have found “reciprocal value” through enhanced product differentiation, reputation management and customer loyalty.  Suppliers and customers must collaboratively strengthen each other’s performance and share cost of ownership and social license to operate.  But supply chain sustainability and corporate governance must be driven by the originating manufacturers that rely on deep tiers of suppliers and vendors for their products.

So Apple should take a cue from Nikes playbook- “Just Do It!”  This issue will not go away on a wing and a prayer.  Here’s how to get it done- right:

1)  As the 2009 post that I mentioned said, get your company on the ground and enforce your Supplier Code of Conduct – now.

2)  Open Up and reach out to external stakeholders, not just your suppliers.  Engage non-governmental organizations early and often.   Find a respected international organization or other third-party to facilitate the engagement process.   Treat communities, NGO’s and suppliers with respect.

3) Work with your supply chain and with industry peers to standardize requirements. Create or revisit the resources allocated in internal procurement networks to collaborate on environmental and social sustainability issues.

4) Construct environmental and social accountability requirements at the purchasing phase. Build environmental and social conformance criteria into supplier contract specs and incorporate sustainability and environmental staff on sourcing teams

5) Inform suppliers of corporate environmental concerns. Standardize supplier questionnaires and make sure that the Supplier Code of Conduct lands in the right hands.  Promote exchange of information and ideas by sponsoring charettes to facilitate discussions between customers and suppliers on environmental and social license issues.  Develop a supplier/vendor peer or mentoring program that promotes co-innovation on sustainability issues

6) Build environmental considerations into product design w/ suppliers. Apple already considers Design for environment (DFE) product innovation and life cycle analyses in its product design.  You’d be well served to coordinate minimization of environmental impact in the extended supply chain and work with suppliers to manage end-of-pipe environmental issues.  Give your suppliers an incentive to reduce their environmental loading associated with their products and improved worker conditions.

7) Follow up! Without adequate on-the-ground follow-through, on-going supplier engagement and long-term commitment of human and financial capital, your sustainability problems will persist.

So like sports stars, business stars can redeem themselves and their reputations.  But it first takes admitting that you have a problem before you can start down that path.  Apple has had a pretty rough year, what with CEO Steve Jobs taking medical leave, its products having persistent quality problems and its connection with negative environmental and human rights issues.  I’m hopeful that Apple and others will get the message that ol’ Ben Franklin stated so long ago but holds true today:

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” -Benjamin Franklin

Until then, “I’m a PC”.

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Risky Business: Why Better Risk Management Can Protect Lives & the Environment- Part 1

3 May

As noted by Jonathan Hiskes from Grist.org the other day, in the aftermath of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it was a hard week and month for the planet.  Hiskes remarked that there was a “confluence of terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad events, rounding up what has to be the most disheartening “Earth Month” ever, “brought to you by the fossil-fuel industry” (http://bit.ly/dgFrBa).  There is no doubt that mining of coal, deep water extraction of oil reserves in the Gulf, and even off-shore wind development have had their dark days or have met with stiff resistance.  Risky operations can have “unintended consequences”, and that is just fine so long as adequate protective measures are in place…and followed.

There are plenty of places to read more about these unfortunate and potentially devastating events.  Blame has been thrown in all directions.  I myself have been quite vocal in recent weeks about the potentially complicit nature of Massey Coals (mis) management which may have led to the unnecessary deaths of the two dozen West Virginia miners last month.  Each safety or environmental accident may in its own right be a “game changer”.  The great political sage, Daniel Schoor ( National Public Radio), in discussing the wealth of political issues facing Washington politicians this year, asked earlier in the week, “What price energy? “(On Hill, Toughest Debate Is Often What to Do First  http://n.pr/aqNR2g)   Is it forty miners and roughnecks dead, or countless soldiers protecting oil “interests” in far away wars?

There are more examples.    A slower “unintended consequence” of the housing boom (and bust) is the unchecked soil erosion from abandoned construction sites and impacted water quality.  Pick any corner of the country and there are mini-Grand Canyons popping up from on-going runoff problems at construction sites that are in foreclosure or bankruptcy. In California, where I advised on construction site soil and storm-water management, laws and protections were put in place to address these issues.  Yet enforcement and cost recovery continues to be weak and require constant vigilance and draining of already thin public resources.  States or local jurisdictions, or the banks holding the properties in foreclosure have been left to take care of these orphaned properties.

Who Loses When Risk is Not Managed?

I have no doubt that there has been a central breakdown in process risk management, commonly used by organizations to establish procedures to safely manage the greatest of uncertainties of its daily operations.  This means that if a company is going to drill a mile under the Gulf of Mexico, they should FIRST make certain that all possible failure scenarios are identified, evaluated, tested and implemented, before that first barrel of oil is extracted (see a recent guest post on Solve Climate entitled“ A Dangerous Life Miles from Land and Focused on One Thing: Black Gold”  at http://bit.ly/aC1TkK and 2003 oil industry report that warned blowout preventer problems weren’t being fixed  http://bit.ly/bEBI05). While it’s vital that 24 hour protocols be applied to day-to-day activities that may be a threat to environmental well-being, unforeseeable events involving human error or equipment failure must be managed too.

In each of the recent events, inadequate steps have been put in place to 1) evaluate “worst case” impacts associated with catastrophic failures of equipment or systems; 2) establish policies and program to mitigate short and long term environmental risk factors and 3) assure that there are financial cushions (cleanup and reclamation bonds, for instance) that continue to hold those liable before they can run or hide.

My experience with risk management suggests that organizations take four approaches for “handling” a risk:

  • Control – lower the probability of the risk event occurrence.
  • Avoid – eliminate the opportunity for the risk to occur.
  • Assume – acknowledge a future risk event & accept the potential consequences without efforts to control it.
  • Transfer – reduce the risk exposure by reallocating the risk from one part of the system to another part.

It would seem that despite BP’s, Massey’s or other company’s claims to know their own business, they employed short-sighted risk management, ignoring possible “unintended consequences”, dropping their eyes on the ball and leading to the resultant safety and environmental impacts.  I would not say this if this was a one-time situation.  But in both  company’s cases, repeated safety and environmental violations over the years (and many deadly and environmentally catastrophic  accidents) suggest just this.

Non-routine accidents or incidents in dangerous working conditions (whether a mile under a mountain or under the sea) must be thoroughly re-evaluated. Risk management processes must revisited now to further lower or eliminate worker safety and environment damages.  Anything less creates unacceptable risk.

In my next post I will describe what process risk management is all about (see below) and what organizations can do to analyze, assess and plan for that “unintended consequence”.