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Apple criticized for questionable green-tech policies in China

Situation raises the need for all tech companies that more closely scrutinize the emissions and toxic substance policies of their suppliers, especially in Asia.

About a year ago, a group called Pacific Environment came out publicly to criticize Apple's use of certain manufacturing organizations in China that it believes use questionable environmental and public health practices. This month, there is another report out by several non-governmental organizations suggesting that the giant technology company has done little to address those concerns, at least publicly. And that it should do more.

That report, "The Other Side of Apple II: Pollution Spreads Through Apple's Supply Chain," is signed by five groups including Friends of Nature, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, Green Beagle, Envirofriends, and the Green Stone Environmental Action Network. I don't really know much about any of them, to be honest. The report details their investigations into Apple suppliers that have known violations in both pollution emissions and improper disposal of toxic substances. One of the suppliers, Meiko Electronics in Guangzhou, has been penalized for more than 10 different violations, according to the report. The report notes:

"The large volume of discharge in Apple's supply chain greatly endangers the public's health and safety. Through the process of our investigations, we discovered several suspected suppliers to Apple that have been the target of numerous complaints from local communities."

Mind you, there is one word in that previous paragraph that really caught my attention, "suspected."

It leads me to wonder whether these organizations can really say with authority that the manufacturing organizations and sites that it is targeting are actually working with Apple, or whether they are making an educated guess based on Apple's voluminous supply chain. No one really knows, and that is part of the problem.

The thing is, Apple does publish supplier responsibility reports and it has been publicly on top of this issue. This is not the first time, however, that the company has been accused of being less than forthcoming about its green credentials. In this specific report, the NGOs say "Apple has systematically failed to respond to all queries regarding their supply chain environmental violations."

To be fair, Apple probably doesn't have the sort of the down-deep visibility that these NGOs are demanding that it have into its supply chain partners. It reminds me of a situation that several of the big apparel makers -- Nike, Adidas and PUMA -- are facing with respect to water management and toxic chemicals discharge policies at some of their own suppliers.

The fact is, these big companies don't always have detailed view into their suppliers' business dealing that some environmental groups are beginning to demand -- especially when it comes to Chinese business partners. That's a problem that more shareholders of public companies are starting to scrutinize.

The report suggests that Apple is a special case. The organizations note: "Even when faced with specific allegations regarding its suppliers, the company refuses to provide answers and continues to state that 'it is our long-term policy not to disclose supplier information.' A large number of IT supplier violation records have already been publicized; however Apple chooses not to face such information and continues to use these companies as suppliers. This can only be seen as deliberate refusal of responsibility."

Based on Apple's long-standing tradition of non-commenting on pretty much any news that it hasn't tightly controlled, I'm not sure I share the same assessment of the reasons that the company has stayed silent on this particular issue. I think it is being mum just because that is its normal tactic when dealing with unpleasant or uncontrolled news.

In this instance, Apple spokeswoman Carolyn Wu told the Reuters news organization:

"Apple is committed to driving the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply base. We require our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made."

I do agree with these environmental groups on one thing: If Apple's suppliers are on the wrong side of environmental policy, then it should do everything in its power to convince those suppliers to change those practices -- even it it means taking its considerable manufacturing business elsewhere.

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