Steve Jobs: the anti-Davos, Davos man

Steve Jobs didn't spend a lot of time trading personal influence with the canape crowd. He didn't scrub up well to role play CEO as statesman. But then he didn't need to all that much. He let his products do the talking instead.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

The world has lost a truly great innovator overnight and I'll leave the eulogies to others more expert on Apple's technological contribution and to those with greater insight on his personal character and leadership style. Instead, I'm going to throw out there a view on his legacy to sustainability in all its wonderful & contradictory glory.

Last January the New York Times asked 'Is Apple the Smartest Company at Davos' revelling in the irony that no Apple executives were even there. They didn't need to be because Apple products could do all the talking and influencing necessary to shape the agenda at jamborees like Davos.  You see, Steve Jobs really did think differently so he didn't really need places like Davos to exert and assert his world vision for sustainability or for social & economic justice. He didn't really need the promethean encounter or the validating embrace of the chattering class. Why?  Because he was just getting on with it while others were talking about it...... and talking .....and talking and... still continue to talk ....for years & years & years. He did it quietly, quickly, effortlessly and most of all he did it his way and on his terms even if that meant eschewing the popularity contests. Did he do enough and enough of the right things? The jury is out, lets see where the Jobs legacy takes us before we write that chapter.

In the meantime lets consider the latest Greenpeace Guide to Greener electronics:

Apple does best on the toxic chemicals criteria, where it scores most of its points. All Apple products are now free of PVC vinyl plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), with the exception of PVC-free power cords in countries where their safety certification process is still ongoing. For this Apple continues to score full marks (doubled). Apple scores points for its chemicals policy informed by the precautionary principle and for lobbying the EU institutions for a ban on PVC, chlorinated flame retardants and BFRs during the current revision of the EU’s RoHS Directive (Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electronics)....

Did Apple take the top score? Noooooo. And why not? Well here is the rub with Apple under Steve Jobs' leadership - maybe thinking a little too different, a little too individualistic:

....but for full marks it needs to provide a public position on its support for immediate restrictions in RoHS 2.0 on organo- chlorine and bromine compounds. It also needs to clarify its stance regarding the position of the trade federation TechAmerica on further immediate restrictions and in particular PVC and BFRs. Apple scores only one point on information about its management of chemicals and its supply chain communications; this criterion evaluates disclosure of information flow in the supply chain. Apple also continues to score poorly for the minimal information it provides about its future toxic chemical phase-out plans.

Update: Greenpeace posted their tribute to Steve Jobs earlier today. Steve Jobs- a worthy opponent, a valuable ally

So Apple performs best on actually designing and delivering products that are as or more sustainabile its competitors but it slips in the rankings because it has been unwilling to be open, evangelic and communicative about it. The same can be said in its approach to social and ethical issues. Apple has been criticised on human rights violations in its supply chain and here too Apple has responded decisively. Tim Cook personally travelled over to Foxconn to investigate the rash of suicides there and the recent supplier responsibility report is very comprehensive in its disclosure. And yet Apple has defiantly faced down hostile shareholder resolutions demanding more sustainability transparency - and this - even with Al Gore sitting on the board.

On the issue of conflict minerals Apple has been decisive in just refusing to source from conflict zones and such 'thinking different' hasn't always won it friends. Many have criticised Apple for creating an effective embargo and thus further deteriorating social conditions. The politically preferred course of action is to exercise exhaustive 'due diligence' while awaiting for governments to get their act together to secure the region and certify the sources as conflict free. This interregnum period is fraught with dangerous moral relativism  - how many rapes or murders per ton of coltan extracted for electronics is an acceptable performance level observed in 'due diligence'? Jobs was having none of it and pulled the plug. Did he do so in recognition of the enshrined principal of the universality of fundamental human rights or out of unswerving loyalty to protection of the Apple brand? I cannot say. I will say this though - if I have to choose between a business leader who is prepared to engage but not act and a one who is prepared to act but not engage - give me action any day of the week. Still, engaging AND acting is better still.

But maybe the best contribution of all is the undisputed excellence of Apple products and the supporting platform. Jobs has unleashed into the world a mobile information revolution that empowers people to connect, influence and understand the sustainability of the social, economic and environmental systems around them. Yes, Facebook might have enabled the Arab spring to happen but the Apple effect delivered it and did so in style. Apple has almost completely virtualized the entertainment industry and has helped unleash a plethora of consumer applications which empower people to make more informed sustainable lifestyle choices for themselves.

There are three principles of integrity in corporate sustainability and they are instructive in assessing Jobs' sustainability score card.

  • materiality - is the company focused on the most relevant impact it has? It should not green wash or obfuscate
  • responsiveness - is the company responding quickly and decisively to the sustainability risks and opportunities arising from its strategy, its products and business operations?
  • inclusiveness - is the company including and collaborating with those who are impacted by or can have an impact on it?

So farewell Mr. Jobs - thank you for the breathtaking innovation and for your unique contribution to sustainable development.  I wish you had been more inclusive but maybe you wouldn't have gotten anything done if you went all 'multistakeholder' on us. Besides, two out of three ain't bad and a hell of a lot better than most.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify and vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. - Apple commercial, 2007

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