Apple's iPhone 5: Where the supply chain begins

Apple's iPhone 5: Where the supply chain begins

Summary: Key to Apple's success has been its diligence in putting together a strong supply chain to make sure products like the iPhone 5 come out perfect. Here's where it begins.


When you picture Apple's iPhone 5, you imagine a sleek device perched in a clinical, modern setting. The complications and complexities are hidden beneath panes of glass and metal. The restrained industrial design hides the messy components behind the screen and makes abstract the even messier process that led to its creation. If you think of any mess at all, you think of the labor unrest in China to which the technology company has been subject. 

An important part of the supply chain is people -- no one can argue with that. But just as important are the materials that those people put together. Not just the components, mind you, but the very elements they're made of. So it might come as a surprise that your cherished iPhone began its life not in a minimalist design lab in Cupertino, but in a massive open pit under a scorching hot sun somewhere near the California-Nevada border.

My CNET colleague Jay Greene -- bless his heart, because I'd melt on such an assignment -- recently visited this pit, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine, to understand where iPhones (and other iProducts) are born. The mine is owned by a company called Molycorp, and is the source of all the rare -- that's why they're named that! -- elements that make modern electronics work.

We may love our gadgets, but they start out dusty, hot and environmentally harmful. (Ironically, they end their lives that way, too.) 

I urge you to read his lengthy report, which you can find right here.

My thoughts upon reading it:

  • It's no wonder Tim Cook is now CEO. Without its formidable supply chain, Apple is merely a tech company with a lot of ideas but no execution. Give credit where credit is due.
  • Electronics are putting massive amounts of stress on limited natural resources -- both from a supply point of view and an environmental one. For all of Apple's green credentials, the company (and its peers) is fundamentally bad for the environment.
  • How deep must we look into tech supply chains? And what do we do once we get to the bottom of them? There's nothing warm or fuzzy or even encouraging about mining rare earth minerals, but we wouldn't have our gadgets without them. What are we OK with?
  • China controls 90 percent of this stuff. When it comes to domestic reliance on imported resources, are iPhones the new crude oil?

What did you think? Leave your impressions below, in Talkback.

Photo: Jay Greene/CNET

Topic: Apple

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Materials are mined... Got it.

    I really can't see why plastering "Apple" all over this makes it news. It really doesn't matter if it's Apple, Toshiba, HTC, LG, Samsung... Oh yeah Intel... Dell ... I don't know, anyone making tech? Basically anything you can buy now that you put a battery in or plug into a wall had many components that started out in a pit somewhere and lots of lovely polution went into the air, land and water during the process of getting it into your hands.

    We could get all deep about this, but there is only one solution if you don't want to be a hypocrite; stop buying the products. I don't like where our tech comes from anymore than anyone else, but flying out to Nevada on a European made plane to rent an american made car and take some photo's with my japanese camera of the pit where my Chinese made phone came from then typing it up on a laptop smacks a bit of irony. My options are binary; buy or not buy. It's up to regulators to change things at this level of the supply chain; your talking about the end companies supplier's, supplier's supplier.
    • It doesn't bother me a bit. Compared to the amount of land on the planet

      That pit is the equivalent of a fragment of a protein in a single cell within your body. Just because it looks big compared to your puny human frame is irrelevant.
    • Economy vs Enviroment vs Resource

      Mark has good point. Pretty much everything we buy nowadays consumes certain kind of resources. On another hand, by buying things we created a thing called economy. If you decide that cutting vegitables is such a big challenge and decide to buy a food processer to do it for you, instead of using a simple knife and practicing the chopping skill, someone somewhere will start to make the petroleum materials and mining for stainless steel and build a factory and hire workers to make the food processer, and someone will arrange the shipping/trucking and someone will build a store to sell it to you.
      That is why a lot of ecomomists think to stimulate ecomony is to encourge the cosumers to buy more things.
      If you think this won't bother you because there are many other land (including countries) to be impacted other than yours, then you have to accept the fact that the economy in the community you live in will not be truely improved. There is no free lunch.
      If you are interested to know what does this impact on the "other land" and "other countries", go out there and look it for youself. Maybe you will think twice when you are tempted to upgrade you iPhone or get a newer modle of food processer just because it now can beat the egg for you too.

      Happy thinking.
      • I totally agree

        Even the knife you buy to chop veggies is made of alloy steel, which contains common metals like iron (mined), rare elements like nickel and chromium (mined), and trace elements molybdenum and vanadium (mined).

        Wake up, Andrew. EVERYTHING that you use in your daily life has a negative environmental impact. So if you really want to be environmentally friendly, you'll make a far greater impact by giving up toilet paper instead of your iPhone.
      • stainless steel is not mined

        it is an alloy made out of iron and chromium :-)
        • stainless steel is not mined

          Yes, and no animals need be killed to supply that meat you get from the grocery store, right? SIgh.
    • Well said

      I agree 100 percent.
    • Why is Apple singled out in this article?

      I think a case can be made that the people that buy Apple products are perceived, whether accurately or not, as somewhat "holier than thou" when it comes to just about anything having to do with Apple. That may be why the author has, in your opinion, "plastered" Apple's name all over the article.

      I think that most, if not all, of the readers of this article believe that other companies in this industry are just as guilty of damaging the environment as Apple is.

      An example in a different industry was singling out Nike for its labor practices abroad when other shoe companies were doing the same. Right now, Apple is prominent in the public eye and focusing on them may indeed be more effective in bringing this problem to the public's attention.

      Of course, whether that increased attention will make any difference in dealing with the actual problem is open to question.

      The point that just about everything made today has some deleterious effect on the environment is well made.

      However, it is also true that man has damaged the environment for a long, long time, long before the industrial age. Or to take a more recent example where it was thought that any technology involved in suppressing fires in the national forests was beneficial, we now know the opposite is true.

      Even other creatures than man, for example, beavers, have effects on their environment that are beneficial to some others, and disastrous for yet others.

      In the end, it is the consumer that is most at fault. In general, while certainly some times seeking to create a demand for their product that did not exist at the time, businesses usually try to give the public what it seems to want.

      You can argue that we have been in some sense "seduced", but we have to admit that we have some of the responsibility. I am not trying to whitewash industry, just to point out that the issue of responsibility is more complicated than it may seem.
    • Apple is mentioned in this article

      because we (apple and fanboys) are object of a chasing..... we have to deal with that as per our characteristic of being special, creative rare people...

      Long Live Apple..!!
      • Apple is victim...

        One of laws in life: Stick your head out of the foxhole and most certainly you will be shot.
    • agree

      I am pretty sure that these rare earths are marketed to a wide range of companies, and that Apple is using only a small part of their output, compared with many other companies, such as auto manufacturers, steel makers, chemical companies, and even watch makers. The obvious intent is to blame Apple for something. Some people would have us return to subsistence farming, in a totally agrarian economy. The trouble with that it if we did, then our life expectancy would drop from near 80 to near 50, and our population of 300,000,000 would need to be reduced to about 50,000,000. Is the author willing to be one of the 250,000,000 that would starve? I'll bet NOT.
  • It really is amazing...

    I find it fascinating when taking a really deep look at the whole sourcing/manufacturing processes required for today's tech devices. Although, why the iPhone was singled out for this report is beyond me (aside from the obvious headline hook)... clearly, all tech devices start in a similar fashion.
    Darren Sproat
    • I feel so guilty just being alive

      It isn't even just tech, or rare earths. Google "iron mine" and look at the pictures... just like this one. Coal mines, too. Here's an idea: let's try to feed everyone now alive without using steel or electricity.
      Robert Hahn
      • A modest proposal

        Let's feed people, other people, thus solving hunger, over population and resource utilization all in one foul swoop. I recommend we feed the 47% who don't pay taxes to the test who pay all the bulls, thus also solving the economic issues.

        Ill take mine grilled with beef burgundy seasoning and some A1. Who's with me?
        Allen Frady
      • Just because... have not environmental consciousness, that fact does not exonerate you.

        Or mankind.

        Or technology.

        It's all very glib to say: the world is thus: get over it. True, it's not in any one manufacturer's court. But if all of us say: "not me, look at what *X* is doing!" then at the end of the day, we reap the rewards of environmental insouciance.

        Sheesh, we've been clever before. Low-carbon-impact solutions exist.. It's up to us as end-users to buy into it.

        Ya reckon?!?!??!?!
    • Re: It really is amazing...

      Right, for some reason Apple always appears to be blamed in the media, probably because it's the market leader, and for the fact that on this planet of the apes it's easier to have one common "enemy".
  • Nice picture.

    Is that where they bury the dead workers?
    William Farrel
    • Nice Picture

      Well I hope they don't bury the live ones!!!!!!
  • Its time to find alternative to rare earth elements

    Some of the critical parts in phones made with rare earth elements and China is only largest supplier. Its time to find alternative to these rare earth elements.
    • Busy signal

      All of the "finders" are already busy finding alternatives to fossil fuels. That's a much bigger issue, so The Office of Priorities has decided to keep the finders where they are until they have solved the fossil fuels problem. Thank you for your patience. I promise, we'll assign the finders to finding replacements for the rare earth minerals just as soon as we can. In the meantime, just keep typing on your keyboard and using your computer.
      Robert Hahn