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Apple: the hidden costs of your iPad and iPhone

Eifion Rees

4th April, 2011

It may have billion-pound profits and gushing praise for technological innovation but Apple is increasingly in the spotlight over its labour rights and environmental record. Eifion Rees reports on the 'sweatshop brand'

Thinner, lighter, faster... The iPad 2, recently launched in the UK, is the latest in a proliferating number of touch-screen devices from computer giant Apple.

It arrives on these shores a mere 12 months after the advent of the original iPad and the fourth-generation iPhone. Since 2007, when the first iPhone was launched, Apple’s smartphones and tablet computers have taken the world by storm.

But in recent years the company has faced criticism for its less than exemplary environmental and social record – including the use of toxic chemicals, a secretive supply chain and a lack of general commitment to green issues. Unlike other companies, it refuses to set future targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and does not produce corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports.

While Apple has belatedly answered many of these accusations, merely responding is the last thing many expected of this pioneer in its field. It may be breaking new ground with its technological innovations, but appears content to react rather than lead when it comes to the environmental and social impact of those products.

If it ain’t broke...

Globally there are in excess of 41 million iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, sales of which have made Apple the world’s most valuable technology company. Four years ago the mobile operating system that supports its i-devices did not exist; now it accounts for 40 per cent of the company’s revenue. The company recorded profits of $6 billion for the fourth quarter of 2010 alone.

The boom is being fuelled by a constant stream of new or upgraded products – a source of some frustration to environmentalists and consumers alike.

'Apple has an incredibly fast refresh rate of new products, gadgets that are very resource-intensive to make and use,” says Tom Dowdall of Greenpeace International. 'The products people buy are out of date within 12 months. It’s the business model for the entire consumer electronics industry and it’s unsustainable. Apple’s biggest challenge is to address that consumption trend. There’s a limit to the sustainability claims any company can make when its business model is predicated on ever-increasing consumption.'

But with Apple shares trading at roughly £200, shareholders appear unlikely to support any change to business as usual. Quite the opposite: in February last year they voted to reject proposals to produce a detailed sustainability report and to create of a board committee focused on sustainability.

Chinese workers poisoned


China is simultaneously a mass-market waiting to be tapped (25 new retail stores are planned there over the next two years) and the manufacturing locus for most of Apple’s products and components. A gulf lies between the bright lights of Beijing, where Apple opened its first Chinese store in 2008, and the factories where the iPads and iPhones are made. A situation that Apple’s lack of transparency about its supply chain has done little to dispel.

Several well documented incidents relating to its manufacturers have occurred over recent years. Scores of workers at a factory in Suzhou run by Taiwanese company Wintek were poisoned in 2010 after exposure to n-hexane, a toxic chemical used to clean components including Apple’s hallmark touch-screens. Two female factory workers northwest of Shanghai were hospitalised for six months in October 2010 after using n-hexane to glue and polish Apple logos on laptops and iPhones.

Also in October, a report by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) made allegations of employee abuse at Chinese factories run by Foxconn Electronics, which supplies Apple. A string of Foxconn workers took their own lives throughout 2010, the 14th in August.

Last year a spokesperson claimed that Apple had been operating 'an extensive supplier auditing programme since 2006', but it guards its manufacturers’ identities so jealously this is impossible to verify, let alone establish whether green and good practice is filtering down the chain.

Apple the 'sweatshop brand'


In January this year the Beijing-based non-profit Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs published a report into 29 global technology companies operating in China. The 36 non-governmental organisations that contributed to The Other Side of Apple placed Apple last in terms of 'responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns'. After a nine-month study into seven of its suppliers, the report dubbed Apple: 'a sweatshop brand [that] based its mass production on its subcontractors, without proper protections in the workplace.'

Speaking at the time, IPE director Ma Jun said Apple had failed to respond to the report into malpractice in its supply chain. He accused the company of valuing the price and quality of its products over the environment and its social responsibilities, arguing that suppliers were being driven to cut corners in order to win contracts.

'Apple’s lack of responsiveness eventually made us quite shocked. It's the whole complacency that it doesn’t have to be accountable to the NGOs, to the communities, even to the poisoned workers.'

The company did finally respond last month with the publication of Apple Supplier Responsibility: 2011 Progress Report, in which it finally acknowledged that 137 workers suffered n-hexane poisoning. The report also found 91 children working in 10 facilities run by its suppliers, compared to 11 at three facilities last year.

Tom Dowdall acknowledges that Apple has made great progress but still has a way to go; he says it is 'living up to its promise of leadership' on the phasing-out of toxic materials, for instance. Further information can be found on the environment section of the Apple website.

And yet it’s difficult to escape the feeling that such leadership has had to be encouraged: chief executive Steve Jobs revealed in 2007 that Apple did have an environmental agenda, but his open letter came a year after Greenpeace had launched Green My Apple. (Far from being stung into action, he explained that 'it is generally not Apple’s policy to trumpet our plans for the future; we tend to talk about the things we have just accomplished'.)

Steve Jobs to blame?


One of the lowest-scoring companies in the inaugural Guide to Greener Electronics in 2006, Greenpeace’s hope had been that an Apple-specific campaign would turn a brand leader into an industry leader on the environment.

When the 16th Guide was published in October 2010, however, Apple had slipped from fifth place to nine, scoring poorly on its recycled plastic content, use of renewable energy and support for a global reduction in greenhouse gases. Some immediate major improvements that Apple could make would be to roll out global recycling coverage, recover and reuse materials from old products, and ensure services hosted on cloud-computing platforms are run on renewable energy, says Dowdall.

Gideon Middleton, a senior lecturer in business and climate change at the University of East Anglia, says Apple’s failure to shoulder its environmental and social responsibilities is down to one man: Steve Jobs.

'Even a company like Wal-Mart is quite forcefully pushing climate change and social responsibility down its supply chain in the Far East – I find it incongruous that Apple isn’t doing the same. To explain that disconnect in what in so many other ways seems to be a responsible brand you would have to look at the belief systems of a company’s senior managers. One would suspect that the ultimate person preventing these things happening is Steve Jobs himself.

It will be interesting to see who replaces Jobs as chief executive if he steps down due to poor health, Middleton adds. 'If they don’t put in someone with a more responsible, ethical and sustainable viewpoint, they will succumb to short-term financial pressures to keep producing more and more new products.'

Apple was approached for a comment but declined to respond to specific questions.

 

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