Thursday, January 27, 2011

The environment (LMS Rte3) and human rights, Apple just blowing smoke?

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On the Envronment and Human Rights, Is Apple Just Blowing Smoke? By Chris Maxcer
Part of the ECT News Network
01/25/11 5:00 AM PT

Apparently, Mike Daisey's monologue play, "The Agony & The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," is hilarious and covers the genius of Apple's CEO, but it also paints a dark picture of Apple's overseas manufacturing efforts. The message is that the products we all love are made under inhumane conditions. And that, perhaps, brings up some interesting ideas of what is humane and inhumane.

Last week, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China put Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) at the bottom of a 29-company list ranking corporate responses to pollution and safety concerns at their factories, and my first reaction was, "What? The bottom? Really?" I thought Apple was the new darling of Greenpeace. I thought Apple was working to remove toxic chemicals and processes from its products.

With most every new press release, Apple points out how its products are greener than previous products. With the MacBook Air announced in October of last year, Apple again boasted that it makes the industry's greenest notebooks and the MacBook Air is the latest Mac notebook to achieve EPEAT Gold status and meet Energy Star 5.0 requirements. Plus, each unibody enclosure is made of recyclable aluminum and comes standard with energy efficient LED-backlit displays that are mercury-free and made with arsenic-free glass. Mac notebooks contain no brominated flame retardants, are PVC-free, and are constructed of recyclable materials.

Sure, the amount of aluminum that could be retained and recycled from a MacBook Air is small compared to the number of aluminum cans that get overlooked and tossed in the landfill by many consumers, but Apple seems to be trying to head in the right direction.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China, along with three dozen Chinese environmental groups, ranked companies on how they dealt with pollution concerns and occupational health hazards at factories. Somehow, Apple managed to come out on the bottom. I find that hard to believe -- but then again, am I just figuratively putting my fingers in my ears, closing my eyes and shouting "la la la la la," at the top of my lungs?

Apparently the main author of the report noted that Apple seemed "totally complacent and unresponsive," and that is something I do believe. Apple is unresponsive to most everyone! Even if a reporter can get through a PR representative in a timely fashion, the response is rarely responsive. It's usually quiet and muted and has barely any new information. But lots of technology companies are like this. Sure, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL) aren't, but they tend to produce for businesses, and businesses want answers. Different game entirely than the consumers Apple is playing with.

I can only imagine how irritated the environmental groups may have been with Apple's lack of response. Could it be a little backlash? Maybe. Or maybe it really means that Apple sucks overseas where most Americans can't see anything.

And yet, Apple seems to have responded with a fairly transparent effort of disclosure over its environmental commitment and efforts. The company created an entire set of Web pages that tell the story behind Apple's environmental footprint. It's packed with numbers and percentages and pretty green graphics, covering manufacturing, transportation, recycling, and even the metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions that are created from the everyday use of Apple products by consumers (4,456,000 metric tons). Is that big? I don't know. But then Apple shows us a big green bar that represents the amount of emissions that a 60-watt incandescent light bulb emits (I'm sitting under four such bulbs right now) and then contrasts that with a really little green bar for a MacBook (which I'm typing on right now).

Apple talks about it green batteries and recycling programs and new smaller packaging for its products. Any long-time Apple fan has seen this, of course. Apple products now come in tiny spartan boxes, which have singlehandedly devastated the elaborate unboxing photos of new Apple products that super lucky geeks posted online Create an online store today -- 30 day free trial. Click here to learn more. after receiving one of the first shipments of Apple's love.

If Apple is making its products more environmentally friendly, is a ranking of 29 even possible? I don't know! But what about the environmental footprints of its contractors? The companies that sign contracts to actually produce Apple products... are they to blame, dumping toxic waste and exposing workers to nasty chemicals in an effort to keep Apple happy? Most certainly. But Apple has an answer for that, too.

Apple created a public set of Web pages and reports for Supplier Responsibility at Apple. On the site, Apple says, "Apple is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility wherever our products are made. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes. Apple's program is based on our comprehensive Supplier Code of Conduct, which outlines our expectations for the companies we do business with. We evaluate compliance through a rigorous auditing program and work proactively with our suppliers to drive change."

Apple even released a 2010 Progress Report, and it's packed with progress -- and what appears to a be a frank representation of some of the challenges.

For instance, most every manufacturer contracts out with other companies to get the supplies of components they need. Apple can't do everything by itself. Period. So Apple has to pay other companies to get the job done for them. It's part of the nature of business, and it seems like it's a 1-to-1 relationship, but it's not. It gets really crazy, fast, especially when it comes to finding labor. Apple reports, "Some of our suppliers work with third-party labor agencies to source workers from other countries. These agencies, in turn, may work through multiple subagencies: in the hiring country, the workers' home country, and, in some cases, all the way back in the worker's home village." And through all of this, the workers can be levied recruitment fees all along the way, which drives down their monetary compensation.

Then there's labor and human rights, health and safety, and even ethical concerns that Apple is trying to police with its own suppliers and contractors in foreign countries. Apple says it audited 102 facilities in 2009, and reports on a number of elements.

Here's another example from the 2010 report: "Apple found 49 facilities where workers were not wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as earplugs, safety glasses, and dust masks. In some instances, the facility had not provided the appropriate safety equipment, while in others, the workers neglected to use the provided equipment or were using it improperly. We directed facilities to provide the required PPE, to educate both workers and supervisors on the risks of not wearing such equipment, and to hold supervisors accountable for ensuring that workers wear the equipment."

I don't find this surprising at all. I know a guy who lost his thumb in a mill in the United States, and guys who broke bones and were lucky to be alive after getting caught in manufacturing equipment -- all here in the United States. Heck, when I was working my way through college, I was framing townhomes where I would walk on top of a 2x4 wall three stories up, without a hardhat or safety harness while catching and nailing trusses brought over to me by a crane. One slip and I would have either plummeted 8 feet to a plywood floor... or 30 feet onto concrete, dirt, or construction debris. If I had to mess with a safety harness, it's possible that I would have fallen just trying to keep track of it, which still might not have eliminated the chance at a broken arm or neck.

Then there's Mike Daisey's monologue play, "The Agony & The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which got a sort of rave review by Leander Kahney on Cult of Mac, who said that all Apple fanboys should see the one-man show. The show is in California now, but will hit Seattle and Washington, D.C., later this year. Apparently, the show is hilarious and covers the genius of Apple's CEO, but it also paints a dark picture of Apple's overseas manufacturing efforts. The message, Kahney reports, is that the products we all love are made under inhumane conditions.

And that, perhaps, brings up some interesting ideas of what is humane and inhumane. On Daisey's blog, he reports that he actually went to China to get some firsthand knowledge of the conditions endured by workers who produce Apple products. He writes, "This story of technology and its pleasures is told against the landscape of southern China, where I witnessed firsthand the true human cost of creating all of our marvelous tools. This behind-the-scenes journey into the heart of the forges where iPods, iPhones, laptops, and all our technology spills forth illuminates a place where workers throw themselves to their deaths from high-rises in modern-day workhouses, where workers die on the production line of overwork, where they sleep in cement cells with dozens of women and men crammed in rooms like labor camps -- a landscape of our own making."

I'm not sure what to make of this. I would love to attend a show -- maybe when it comes to Seattle or if Daisey manages to produce a video of it. On the one hand, I've personally had several near-death and near-mangled experiences over the course of my working lifetime until I found my way into jobs where the most serious health risk is carpal tunnel pain and legs that fall asleep due to poorly padded office chairs.

I'm lucky. I know it. And the thing is, even while I was not slipping off a wall, and even while I was not getting crushed or decapitated by giant steel culverts -- long story -- I felt lucky then, too. I had a job. I was getting paid. I knew the basic risks. I wonder if most of the workers overseas, working for Apple's contractors, feel lucky, too. This is the question that haven't really seen answered, and it's the one, I think, that's most telling. It's not how many 15-year-old kids managed to get jobs in violation of rules or law or even how someone got a crushed hand trying to do their job. I hope they don't go to work hating life. And I hope we get to a point where jobs aren't risky, where employers take care of people as people, and a point where everything isn't built by robots.

The fact is, I didn't go to China myself. And I'm not trying to sell a widely successful monologue play where hilarity is currency and dark drama heightens the experience. I'm not a large corporation trying to woo public opinion, either. The fact is, I have far too little information available to form a real opinion, despite the fact that many of us seem hardwired to either create one or let someone else mold it for us. But then again, sometimes progress is only made by those who scream and yell -- never mind the baffling shades of grey.

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