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Something is rotten with Apple’s Chinese factories.

2011-11-04

Co.Exist

Is Tim Cook's Apple Going To Stop Poisoning China?

The company is already notorious for the way workers in its Chinese suppliers’ factories are treated, but what’s less known is those same factories’ incredible impact on the environment. But after years of ignoring concerns, Apple may be starting to come around.

Before Tim Cook became Apple’s CEO, his job was to make sure that all the moving pieces of the company’s mssive supply chain functioned smoothly, efficiently, and in the shadows. Apple’s supply chain is notoriously opaque, and for good reason; the company thrives on rumors about its next big products, but all that mystique could be taken away if its supply chain was exposed. That’s not to say that Apple’s suppliers are completely unknown--after Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn experienced a spate of suicides last year, Apple executives publicly visited the factory to figure out how to prevent more people from killing themselves. It was Cook who led this delegation.

Despite its progress in the human rights arena, Apple has a long way to go in improving its suppliers’ environmental practices. Even the company’s 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report pays little attention to environmental issues. Now that Cook, who is already getting a reputation as being a bit more friendly and open than Steve Jobs (he’s already reversed the company’s anti-philanthropy stance), has taken over, will the supply chain also become more open? Or will Apple keep churning out iPads at the expense of Chinese lives and the environment? Ma Jun, the Director of China’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), spoke with Co.Exist at BSR’s 2011 conference about the trouble with Apple’s suppliers, and how the electronics manufacturer is finally gearing up to make changes.

Ma’s interest in the IT supply chain stems from the dozens of heavy metal poisonings that have occurred in China since 2009. Mines, leather producers, and the chemical industry are traditionally blamed for the poisonings, but the IT industry has recently also come under fire.

In 2010, the IPE teamed up with The Green Beagle and the Friends of Nature to release a series of reports about the IT industry’s environmental violations. "At the beginning, not many companies responded. After quite a few months of interaction, Apple really stood out," says Ma. "Many others would at least say okay, I received your letter, and most of them would say we need to check on [these violations]. But Apple was totally evasive if not unresponsive."

Secrecy breeds curiosity, however, and many of Apple’s suspected suppliers are listed on the IPE’s pollution maps, which offer the environmental supervision records of Chinese manufacturers and suppliers as well as data on local levels of water and air pollution. So the organization and a team of partner organizations decided to dig even deeper into Apple’s supply chain, first with a report in January 2011, and then with a follow-up in August 2011.

The first report details some grim human rights violations, but the second report delves into the environmental practices of Apple suppliers, which are not scrutinized as often. "We found violations of wastewater standards and water pollution, air pollution, air emissions problems, and hazardous waste disposal problems," says Ma. "The volume of hazardous waste generated by the supply chain is amazing. In one case, we found that a single factory generated 110,000 tons of hazardous waste a year." It’s an unsustainable practice on many levels, explains Ma, both because Apple (and its supply chain) is growing so fast, and because product life cycles are getting so much shorter--meaning more and more people want the goods that these factories pump out.

Take the city of Kushan, in Jiagsu Province. Kaedar Electronics and Unimicron Electronics, a pair of suppliers, are both based there. Kaedar dumps untreated wastewater into the local community’s waterways and releases toxic spray coating emissions, while Unimicron releases acid gas emissions.

When IPE visited Kunshan, it found locals who complained of a "poisonous gas" emitted by the companies--a smell so strong that they do not dare open their windows for fear of choking in the middle of the night. Residents also complained of chest pain, dizziness, frequent nose bleeds, and "inky black" water in a nearby stream.

The report offers this harrowing anecdote:

"During the investigation, the villagers spontaneously took water from the stream, pouring the water into a plastic bottle. Suffering from gastric cancer, Zhu Guifen, who has already had her stomach removed due to cancer, clutched a plastic bottle; along with more than ten middle-aged villagers they assembled in front of us. At that time, we were astonished by the scene in front of our camera. These 21 ladies, with an average age of 55 suddenly and simultaneously fell to their knees, clutching the bottle of polluted water and pleaded “We beg you, help us! Help us ordinary people!”

Ma recalls one factory worker--an 18 year-old girl--who was poisoned while working for an Apple supplier. "After half a year [at work][/at] she couldn’t walk properly and fell to the ground. She couldn’t pick up a brush or chopsticks," says Ma. "She got better, but the problem is, she is not fully recovered, and her family spent so much of their money [on medical bills]. It was a desperate situation."

It’s not that Apple is so much worse than its competitors. The company is just becoming so large that everything it does has an outsized impact. "Apple is simply growing from a niche market product manufacturer into a major manufacturer, and the volume is getting a lot bigger," says Ma. "The sheer scale of that means that its impact is growing."

After the IPE and its partners published the second Apple report, the company "expressed its willingness to set up a platform to communicate," according to Ma. "We had a candid discussion about issues that we identified. They explained their take, and both sides agreed that we should try to work together." Apple still refuses to disclose its suppliers, of course, but that doesn’t really matter. The IPE largely knows who Apple’s suppliers are (from talking to locals and monitoring media reports), so if Apple makes changes, it will be apparent to all concerned.

The IPE has now had multiple meetings with Apple. This past month, Ma went to Apple’s Cupertino headquarters along with colleagues from the National Resource Defense Council for a five-hour meeting. "They’re hiring experts to check up on their suppliers, on the cases we raised. They’re going to update us about this."

Ma believes that pressure on suppliers from Apple is already making a difference. "Suppliers have come to us--and local NGOs where they’re based--telling us what went wrong and how they’ve tried to fix their problems. And some of them give us a timeline. For example, Foxconn told us they would finish their corrective actions on October 27," he says. In this case, the "corrective actions" include installing better emissions control equipment in workshops near local residences.

Ma also recently received a call from a factory manager at 2:30 a.m. His factory had been discharging copper into a local waterway; the supplier urgently wanted to meet Ma and figure out a way to dredge the lake, insisting that it was because of his environmental consciousness. "I want to give some credit to Apple," says Ma.

Apple’s overtures toward the IPE have sparked hope that the company will continue to more closely regulate its supply chain. Ma cites Siemens, which has software that compares its 10,000 suppliers with the IPE’s 90,000-plus pollution records, as a company to emulate. When Siemens discovers a problem, the company sends a letter in the name of the CEO and COO requesting corrective action to be taken within a certain deadline. "It’s important for Apple to move from being passive to being proactive," says Ma. "I’d hope they could set up their own screening system to identify problems before, in a proactive way, instead of waiting for us."

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8 Comments

  • Emily D'Ath

    Great article. Ariel. I would be interested to hear your ideas about the Chinese governments responsibly in actually implement and monitor environmental and social regulations. From my perspective there is not enough pressure placed on companies like Apple by the government to abide by current regulations. 

  • magokey

    Agreed, Andrew.  This article only paints one side of the pollution
    story, and I hardly think Apple is the sole culprit to be blamed here.  IPE is an environmental advocacy group.  This information would certainly be more easy to digest if it was founded off of more than one source, and an un-biased one at that. 

    Schwatrz, have you investigated how the chemicals in electronics products compliant with RoHS measure up to electronics that don't?  There are some great horror stories there!

  • Ariel Schwartz

    I attempted to contact numerous other groups/people with information on Apple's supply chain, but as I mentioned in the article, Apple is incredibly secretive. Everyone I contacted either wouldn't comment or didn't know enough to comment. I'm also still waiting on a comment from Apple. And, once again, I never said Apple was the sole culprit.

  • Andrew Lazorchak

    Pollution in China is a real serious problem and even the Chinese gov't is embracing this, albeit slowly. 

    However, it is not okay to paint pictures of Chinese factories that are poisoning thie local environment, as if there is no flip side of the coin.

    I was just visiting a factory I work with in China, and asked them about the suicide issues at Apple.  Their response was that they felt this was also an issue of the rights the workers have.  As I was told, there are rewards to the families for anyone that dies while working for apple, and this is far greater than what most people will earn, hence some workers would opt for death so that their families could reap the rewards.

    Not all factories in China abuse the environment, and it is standard practice for factories to have their staff live on site (FYI: if you work at apple you can not leave the factory compound until the product you have worked on is on the market).  Point is, no matter what your views on pollution are, when you are running a business no successful company would poison it's own workers.

    There are lots of rounded points in your story, and horror stories of working conditions from the 80's are long-gone.  The world is too small to make large generalizations.

    And 2-steps ahead, we should spend this energy working on how to make it cost-efficient to bring manufacturing back to the USA and spruce up our own economy.  There are plenty of problems at home that could use some press and attention too.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Thanks for your response, Andrew. I'm a little unclear about some of your points--I don't single out employees working onsite as a problem, nor did I talk about suicides. I also never said that all factories in China abuse the environment, let alone all of Apple's suppliers. As for your comment that "horror stories of working conditions from the 80's are long-gone"--that may be true, but again, this article isn't focusing on working conditions; it's talking about environmental issues. And these are certainly not long-gone.