By Helen Cross
Apple is a modern day business fairytale. The tech company has pulled off the enviable coup of combining exponential growth with cross-sector trend setting. Everyone from Carrie Bradshaw and City boys, software nerds to hipsters all covet the latest MacBook, and lines still snake round the block every time a new iPhone is realised.
Apple’s image is hip, innovative, friendly and progressive; surely a perfect fit for Corporate Social Responsibility. Even its iconic logo looks like something that could be appropriated by a clean energy company. Adverts like the one below hint that Apple is aware of, and perhaps exploits, this image. So the environmentally aware could be forgiven for thinking they can covet Apple products with a clean conscience; in fact, a survey by The Diffusion Group (TDG) in 2008 saw over 1500 internet users rate Apple as the most environmentally friendly tech brand.
Unfortunately the truth is does not correlate with this perception: think suicides, conflict materials and cancer causing chemicals. Perturbed by the things I was hearing about Apple’s supply chain, I decided to ask the question ‘how green is your Apple’?
After a great deal of pressure from a campaign launched by Greenpeace forced Apple to reduce the impact of toxic chemicals used in their products, the company did in fact reduce their eco-impact, and became certified by EPEAT, an electronic standards group, as being eco-friendly.
However, in July of last year, Apple instructed EPEAT to withdraw 39 products, including the MacBook Air, from its list of green products. EPEAT certified products must be recyclable, as energy efficient as possible and must minimise environmental harm, but Apple stated that their ‘design direction’ was ‘no longer consistent with EPEAT requirements’. So are Apple putting design ahead of sustainability? It appears so.
So what’s the consequence of this? Often difficult to fix and easily made obsolete (think of how many iPad versions have come out recently!), older Apple products often end their lives in China, in small villages such as Guiyu, once described as the ‘Chernobyl of electronic waste’. Residents of Guiyu have increased rates of cancer, more miscarriages and high levels of lead poisoning in children. Lead from iPhones is recovered by heating them over fires, releasing toxic ash, while other components are soaked in battery acid to release valuable copper wires, leading to yet more harmful chemicals.
Moreover, Apple has been controversial in the way that it seems to push customers into buying the latest version of its products, instead of repairing old ones; those waiting outside Apple stores at 5am are not people without phones or iPads; rather they are casting aside perfectly good electronics for the latest model. Even those inclined to attempt to fix a broken phone know it’s not easy: iPhones are glued together, nearly impossible to take apart, as anyone who has suffered a shattered screen knows.
It is worth noting that Apple is attempting to rectify their slide in eco-friendliness: they do refuse to use the most dangerous e-waste chemicals, and are encouraging users to send their used phones back to Apple in their county of origin, where they will be disposed of safely. But what about earlier in the product lifecyle?
The iPhone begins its life in the steamy Congo, a tragically war torn country in Central Africa. Virtually lawless, the Congo is inexplicably destitute, despite being home to vast deposits of valuable minerals such as tantalum, tin and gold; minerals vital to the production of consumer electronics. The extraction and trade of these materials is truly horrific: child labour, institutionalised murder, mass rape and deadly chemicals. As there are currently no ‘conflict free’ phones on the market, despite a petition with almost 70,000 signatures, it is safe to assume that most, if not all, cameras and phones began their lives in the hellish mines of the Congo.
After their raw materials are mined, Apple products are then assembled in China, in one of the now notorious Foxconn factories. Foxconn owns vast factories, employing more than 190,000 workers, and hit the headlines last year after huge riots exposed the company’s less than savoury working practices. 30 hour shifts, health hazards, explosions and so many suicides that so called ‘suicide nets’ had to be implemented,: it is hard to imagine a worse link in the supply chain than Foxconn.
Whilst conditions at the factory are undoubtedly appalling, it is worth noting that improvements are being made: as of late 2012 breaks will be enforced, excessive working hours will be curbed and the Fair Labour Association (FLA) has been hired to audit factories. Apple is also not alone in using such factories: most, if not all, major electronics companies will have dark spots like these on their supply chains.
Yet a 2013 sustainability report indicates that Apple still has far to go, revealing a litany of environmental failures. Improper handling of chemicals, failure to label hazardous waste and the improper of dangerous e-waste were just some of the instances detailed. The fact that Apple has been transparent about these findings is encouraging; the fact that it has taken a somewhat ‘softly softly’ approach when dealing with them is not.
But where does the impetus to comply environmentally come from? Consumer regard for Apple remains high (it is still the UK’s most desired brand) and demand for new products continues to be insatiable. Perhaps these issues are the price of progress: tech firms must remain on the cutting edge, whilst keeping up with often intense customer demand. To embrace sustainability may mean disappointing customers, coming out with less effective products and, ultimately, this may be the difference between ‘sinking or swimming’ in a highly competitive industry.
In the long run, consumers must convince Apple that profits or reputation will suffer if it doesn’t deal with the serious issues in its supply chain. The fact that ecologically minded newcomers to the market, such as Fairphone, are starting to compete with Apple and other electronic giants may be the wake up call the company ultimately needs.
Helen Cross has been working in online marketing for a number of years; however her position at The British Assessment Bureau has allowed her to develop her interest in corporate social responsibility and sustainability. When not working she can be found seeking out deserted beaches, off the beaten track destinations and the perfect coffee.