As the founder of China’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), former journalist Ma Jun spearheads an organization that has uncovered over 90,000 air and water violations by both local and multinational companies in China. The IPE most famously put out a series of reports about the IT industry’s environmental violations that led to meetings with Apple; now the electronics giant is taking steps to clean up its most polluted factories (in addition to working on human rights issues). This week, Ma Jun was named the Asia Recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, a $150,000 award for grassroots environmental leaders. Co.Exist spoke to Ma Jun to learn more about what he’s currently working on.
Co.Exist: When we talked last, it was before Apple had made any big announcements on the environmental front, but it seems like a lot of progress has been made, and at least some of it may be due to your work.
Ma Jun: At that time, we already started our interaction with Apple and it was just after I had my meeting with them in Cupertino. I do feel that they have changed mindset on this issue, because at the end of our long meeting they said, "We need some kind of transparency over our supply chain management." That was something I never heard before. Since then, we’ve had further communications and discussion. They reported back about some of the progress made in checking up on their suppliers that we cited in our report. They also created timelines to fix all their problems.
But then we still have a problem. How do we verify this? When they checked back saying, "We’ve done quite a lot but why isn’t our ranking changed [in IPE’s IT report (PDF)]?" I said it’s about validation, because you just told us that you’ve done this and this and this, but how do we verify that without transparency and disclosure? I think we finally now reached a deal to make one pilot audit following our protocol. Our audit protocol requires the audit to be done by professionals but under the supervision of local NGOs, and then the report needs to be made public.
Co.Exist’s latest story on your work received a lot of comments from people saying that other IT companies have inferior environmental practices. Do you think that Apple making these changes will impact other companies operating in the region?
I think we’ve already felt that. Ever since we published the first Apple report, we’ve had some other brands turning more proactive. We have Lenovo, the first Chinese company that decided to use our [database] to track down and push those [environmental] violators to change. We have Sony, the first Japanese company to use our system. So to me, the change of Apple is very, very important because they are considered to be not the just the largest but the most successful. And if they simply say, "I made a policy not to talk, not to disclose," then they would be freed from all this public scrutiny. We already feel that some other companies sometimes check with us that if [Apple’s position] could be tolerated, then why should they spend all these resources to try to do better? In some cases, it’s not just about cleaning up the factories. It’s about cleaning up the nearby rivers and lakes that have been tainted with heavy metals.
What’s your primary focus right now?
We continue the IT industry project, but in the meantime we decided it’s about time for us to expand that to other industries. Our plan is to do this industry by industry. IT was the first industry we picked, so we spent the last two years primarily focused on that. But nine months ago we started our investigation into the apparel industry. This Tuesday we launched our first report. We managed to figure out the links with the polluting factories and also the brands. We sent out letters to CEOs of all these brands.
Of course this industry is also a major polluter of water resources. It’s extremely water intensive. Every year it dumps more than 2.5 billion tons of waste water. It is the dyeing and finishing process which is extremely troublesome. So we highlighted all those issues in our letters to the CEOs of 48 companies with specific questions about suppliers and tried to convince them that it’s time to strengthen management, taking advantage of all this expansion of transparency, working with the local stakeholders. So far, 21 of them responded. H&M and Nike and Adidas were all quite proactive. But there are also laggards—Macy’s, Sears, Victoria’s Secret. So far, they have not responded.
It seems like the apparel industry is a little more transparent to begin with than the IT industry.
I would agree with that. I think there are a few brands like Nike and Patagonia which are quite progressively minded. In Nike’s case, they had their moment in the 1980s [with labor issues]. They learned that all this public concern and scrutiny is legitimate and they had to deal with that. So I think there is a longer history in dealing with this, starting with labor. But I hope this is a moment to extend that to the environment.
Do you see any overarching industry-related environmental challenges in China that you hope to tackle in the coming years?
Pollution is a serious one. Water pollution, air pollution, and then solid hazardous waste pollution. And then beyond that we also have the resources issue. Not just water resources but other natural resources, the mining resources being consumed and the destruction of our ecosystem. The problem can get to such a level of severity, and I think one of the reasons is that we have gaps in our governance—weak enforcement, for example. The extreme difficulty in filing environmental lawsuits. The low cost of natural resources like water. All these are part of the problem in our governance. We need to change that, but it won’t change overnight, so we need to find alternative ways to deal with it. I think people need to be informed and then provided a choice. In this globalized economy, there’s a disconnection between the pollution and consumption. We need to reconnect the dots.