Apple’s New Era of Transparency

Posted by · January 13, 2012 3:58 pm
Tim Cook, Apple COO, in january 2009, after Ma...

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Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs. But who says he has to be in order to improve the company that the late Apple CEO and co-founder made legendary? While the extremely guarded approach that Jobs took to build Apple from the ground up served the company well in many respects, the increased demand for company transparency by consumers suggests that it may be in Apple’s best interest to set aside some of that mysteriousness in order to connect with consumers on another, more long-term level.

On Friday, the new Apple CEO took the initial steps to address concerns about poor working conditions in the Apple supply line, shedding some light on its once closely guarded list of global suppliers.

“With every year, we expand our program, we go deeper in our supply chain, we make it harder to comply,” Cook told Reuters in an interview. “All of this means that workers will be treated better and better with each passing year. It’s not something we feel like we have done what we can do, much remains to be done.”

According to Apple, the company increased audits by 80 percent compared to the previous year, conducting 229 audits in 2011 alone. This number stands in stark contrast to the 288 total audits performed from 2007 to 2010.

The audits yielded a 500-page report—entitled the “Apple Supplier Responsibility 2012 Progress Report”—which uncovered egregious violations by many of its China-based suppliers. Such violations include abusive pay, unjust benefits standards and harmful environmental practices. More specific violations uncovered by the audits included wastewater dumping onto a neighborhood farm, operating factory machines without proper safeguards, compulsory pregnancy testing for workers, fraudulent pay records, and docking pay as a disciplinary measure.

If that wasn’t enough, the report also uncovered six active and thirteen historical cases of child labor in the facilities of some of its component suppliers.

In order to properly address these troubling supplier practices, Apple took yet another historical step on Friday by becoming the first technology company to become a participating member in the Fair Labor Association.

By joining the FLA, Apple will authorize an independent assessment of the Apple’s supply chain facilities and report its findings on the association’s website.

“We welcome Apple’s commitment to greater transparency and independent oversight,” commented FLA President and CEO Auret van Heerden, “and we hope its participation will set a new standard for the electronics industry.”

Criticism of abusive labor practices and work conditions has become an increasingly pressing issue as of late. In fact, in the latest episode of the popular radio show This American Life, host Ira Glass spends the hour covering self-described “worshipper in the cult of Mac” Mike Daisey, who flew to the Foxconn facility in China to meet the people who make and assemble our iPhones.

Needless to say, his findings were less than encouraging. A Bloomberg report notes that twelve worker suicides have taken place in Apple-held plants alone.

Unfortunately, the picture only worsens when one looks at the industry as a whole. Despite the impressive displays and demonstrations that flooded CES 2012 this week, the disturbing truth is that almost all of those devices are wrought in similar, or worse conditions.

That being said, it only takes one brave leader to start a dynamic shift in the marketplace, and it certainly helps that movement along when that leader comes from a company as revered and exemplary as Apple. While the militaristic culture that plagues overseas electronics suppliers and manufacturers is deplorable, what Tim Cook has done to address those concerns is not only historic, but revolutionary.

By willingly exposing the harsh reality that workers endure to make electronics available to the “developed” world, the new Apple CEO has reignited a long-extinguished spark of hope in corporate responsibility and consumer activism, concepts which have unsurprisingly been subject to increased cynicism in recent years.

Moreover, Apple now finds itself in a unique position, one in which the company will be able to redefine the culture that makes its products so appealing.

Through a newly focused concern with the welfare of its workers and the protection of the environment, Apple will have the opportunity to create a consumer culture that considers price in light of the human and environmental costs that are paid to make a given product cheaper. And in so doing, competitors will eventually be forced to follow suit in order to remain competitive by this new standard.

Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs. But in an age where consumers continue to demand increased transparency from the companies they patronize, that’s probably a good thing.

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