A Greener Apple: SCMP Op-Ed April 7, 2011
When Apple announces profits for the second fiscal quarter this month, analysts expect record figures amid a slew of new products. The previous quarter was already a record for Apple, which posted revenues of US$26 billion and profit of US$6 billion. The question we should ask, then, is: does a company with a solid reputation for being on top of its game have a responsibility to manufacture without excessive environmental and social cost?
The well-documented poisoning of workers and violation of environmental regulations at some of Apple’s key suppliers shows there is an obvious gap in environmental and socially responsible management throughout the company’s supply chain.
Over the past nine months, Chinese environmental organisations have pushed global and local IT brands to recognise social and environmental problems within their supply chains and resolve them. Among the 29 brands targeted, Apple was the only company to be evasive, if not completely unresponsive.
Recently, Apple admitted that 137 workers were poisoned but continues to place the blame with the supplier, Wintek.
Throughout their lifecycle, from material extraction to production, and from consumer use to disposal, electronic products have the potential to affect human health and the environment through the release of chemicals and energy consumption. Printed circuit boards and battery production, in particular, create heavy metal pollution.
Part of the problem, of course, lies with the consumer, whose demand for cheap goods means the purchased item doesn’t reflect the true cost of production – the toll on the environment,and on public and worker health.
Furthermore, information technology companies continue to produce goods that have obsolescence built in – meaning we consume endlessly, looking for the latest product. Who should bear those costs? In the case of poisoning and pollution incidents, the violating supplier has a responsibility, as does the government department where a lack of supervision may have caused the incident.
However, a company such as Apple cannot avoid its own responsibility either. Amid economic globalisation, Apple has not retained any of its own factories and even the production of parts as small as screws has been outsourced. That does not mean pollution and occupational injuries during the manufacturing of Apple products have disappeared.
We must remember that suppliers who violate environmental standards and ignore workers’ health do this to cut costs. Analysis of the distribution of profits in the supply chain for the iPhone 4 has shown that, for each iPhone 4 selling for US$600, Foxconn and other Chinese assembly companies receive only US$6.54. Apple’stakings for each iPhone 4, on the other hand, is up to US$360.
With power comes responsibility. Is it really fair for Apple to grab most of the profit yet shirk responsibility for environmental pollution and worker poisonings in its supply chain?
Apple claims that “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”. But environmental protection groups have found that Apple has seriously violated its own promises. Yet, the company is deeply involved in supply chain management – from the choice of materials to the control of dust levels in the production process.
At present, China’s environmental-information disclosure is expanding, meaning that many companies’ environmentalviolation records can be acquired by the public. Brands have already started using this information to ensure suppliers are not in violation of local environmental laws.
Apple needs to change its opaque supply chain and social responsibility management system, and work to overcome problems in its supply chain
Ma Jun is director of Beijing’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs