Is Apple Supply Chain ‘Polluting and Poisoning’?

A new report suggests that Apple is secretive about its supply chain, and that very supply chain is polluting and poisoning the environment.  Is there truth behind the allegations?  And even if the allegations were true, is Apple responsible for the actions of their supply chain?

The report is put out by an activist group, the IPE, Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. The first challenge with verifying the information contained in the report is that it is written in Chinese. But nevertheless, let’s ask the tough questions about the report and about Apple.

One of the core concepts of sustainability is the idea of transparency: transparency about worker wellbeing, transparency about environmental impact.  And yes, transparency also applies beyond the company, into the supply chain.

It’s no secret that Apple is a highly secretive company (which is not necessarily a bad thing), especially secretive about its up and coming products.   This secrecy even extends to Apple’s supply chain.

Of course it is secretive about whether or not the supply chain is polluting and poisoning the environment since Apple is a secretive company!  Even if it were doing good things, it probably would not say much.

But the problem with such secrecy is that it raises red flags about whether the Apple supply chain is doing the right or wrong things in regards to workers and the environment.  Not saying anything sometimes leads one to suspect a company is guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around.

It’s also no secret that Apple focuses on designing products, while outsourcing all manufacturing.  The Guardian quotes Ma Jun of the IPE on the fact that Apple itself may be green, but the supply chain is not, “Apple can say it is completely ‘green’ because it is a brand with no factory, but if it doesn’t manage its supply chain, these are just empty words.”

Noted industrial designer Dieter Rams suggests that Apple is one of the few companies in the world that live and breathe his 10 design principles, with one principle specifically of interest: “Good design is environmentally friendly.”   Apple holds design dear to its companies core.  Hence, it is difficult to believe that Apple is not holding its supply chain up to higher standards in terms of how the supply chain treats the environment.

However, let us assume for the sake of argument that the supply chain is “polluting and poisoning” the environment.  Does this make Apple responsible though it did not commit such actions itself?  Yes and no.

If responsibility is transferred up the supply chain towards Apple, by the same logic, it transfers up to the end consumer.  This makes makes the end consumer ultimately responsible.  But responsibility can be pushed the other way, down the supply chain to the outsourced manufacturer.

I do respect and appreciate the secretive culture of Apple.  I’d rather have a company that is doing all the right things and not saying anything, rather than a company doing all the wrong things, and saying the right things.  By the same token, I just need to know the company is doing something right, whether from itself or a trusted third-party.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.