Tag Archives: Tim Cook

Will Apple Finally Embrace Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability w/ Tim Cook at Helm?

19 Jan

If you have been a frequent reader of this space, you’d know my position on Apple and the manner in which it’s conducted its supply chain sustainability programs…or hasn’t.

2011: Game On (or the Collective Karma Ran Over Your Dogma)

Last fall, I wrote about the follow up efforts by Chinese NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), who 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.”

Six months before that (nearly a year ago), I presented my thoughts about the IPEs report 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.

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 as I saw it then (and this thought has now been vindicated) is when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainability, transparency is the name of the game, not secrecy.  I also suggested that Apples supplier network may be too big to handle and they lack the tools, systems and technologies to perform adequate supplier training and oversight.  Combined with inconsistent Chinese regulatory agency oversight on its industrial manufacturers, this presented difficult challenges to a workable, and meaningful sustainable supply chain solution. But Nike did it, so why couldn’t (or wouldn’t) Apple, I asked?

My advice last September to Apple and new CEO Tim  Cook was to step up and be as evolutionary on corporate social responsibility and sustainability matters as it is with its products.  My exact words were: “show humility, take responsibility, and act swiftly and collaboratively.”

Gladly I am happy to report that Apple has wised up and stepped voluntarily under the glare of public scrutiny.

2012: Enter Mr. Cook…the New, Improved, Socially Responsible Apple?

"Good Apple"

In its Supplier Responsibility 2012 Progress Report, the company states it is “committed to driving the highest standards for social responsibility throughout [its] supply base”. It adds: “We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.”

The 156 companies it lists alongside the report on its Supplier Responsibility website account from more than 97 per cent of what Apple pays to suppliers to manufacture its products.  A complete picture of all the thousands of suppliers in Apples supply chain may be daunting, but at least the company has captured the suppliers where the “greatest spend” is.

Highlights from the 2012 Report

  • In 2011, we conducted 229 audits throughout our supply chain — an 80 percent increase over 2010 — including more than 100 first-time audits. We continue to expand our program to reach deeper into our supply base, and this year we added more detailed and specialized audits that focus on safety and the environment.
  • Apple-designed training programs have educated more than one million supply chain employees about local laws, their rights as workers, occupational health and safety, and Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct.
  • Our audits have always checked for compliance with environmental standards. In 2011, in addition to our standard audits, we launched a specialized auditing program to address environmental concerns about certain suppliers in China. Third-party environmental engineering experts worked with our team to conduct detailed audits at 14 facilities. We uncovered some violations and worked with our suppliers to correct the issues. We will expand our environmental auditing program in the coming year. [violations unearthed included dumping wastewater onto a neighboring farm, using machines without safeguards, testing workers for pregnancy and falsifying pay records]
  • We have a zero-tolerance policy for underage labor, and we believe our system is the toughest in the electronics industry. In 2011, we broadened our age verification program and saw dramatic improvements in hiring practices by our suppliers. Cases of underage labor were down significantly, and our audits found no underage workers at our final assembly suppliers. [Apple said it found six active and 13 historical cases of underage labor at some component suppliers, but none at its final-assembly partners]
  • We offer continuing education opportunities at our suppliers’ facilities free of charge. More than 60,000 workers have enrolled in classes to study business and entrepreneurship, improve their computer skills, or learn English. And the curriculum continues to expand. We’ve also partnered with some local universities to offer courses that employees can apply toward an associate degree.

Apple has vowed to deal with worker abuses, hoping to deflect criticism it was turning a blind eye to cases of poor working conditions in a mostly Asian supply chain. Perhaps in a huge move, Apple will allow independent auditors from the Fair Labor Association to also be part of the future auditing process.  In an interview last Friday, Mr. Cook said Apple’s vow to double the number of supplier audits along its supply chain is “raising the bar” for the entire high technology industry, and that more change is on the way.  Cook said “All of this means that workers will be treated better and better with each passing year…It’s not something we feel like we have done what we can do, much remains to be done.”

The San Jose (California) Mercury News quoted analyst Ken Dulaney with Gartner Research who wondered why this may have taken so long to happen. “Who knows why they didn’t do this sooner? It could have been because of Steve Jobs. Maybe with Cook’s financial background he’s trying to move Apple toward less secrecy, which would be a very good thing. It’s part of their trying to be a good global citizen.”

Under Scrutiny

Either way, Apple will continue to be under watchful eyes, as environmentalist and labor activists continue to push for more reforms by American companies doing business overseas.  Apple still will need to double down its efforts to respond more proactively to the many environmental impact related issues reported in the past by its major suppliers, especially in China.  But for a company that has played its cards extremely close to the chest, it’s a major breakthrough, if time proves the intent to be true.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum in Washington, D.C, said that how the industry as a whole responds” depends how engaged they [Apple] are going forward. You see companies make these commitments and there’s often a lot of fanfare, but it doesn’t always pan out the way they say it will.”

Maybe Mr. Cook is the one “Good Apple” that will save the bunch.  Let’s hope so.

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.