2012 couldn’t have begun and ended more differently for Apple. The year started with growing criticism over Apple’s manufacturing practices in China that reached new heights with This American Life’s episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” where Mike Daisey presented his harsh report (that later was proved to be partially false) on his journey to Foxconn’s factory in China.
By the end of the year, sentiments were blowing the opposite direction, with Apple receiving praise for bringing back jobs to America as it began assembling some of its new Macs in the U.S. In addition, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, vowed to implement greater transparency and told Bloomberg Businessweek, “We want to be as innovative with supply responsibility as we are with our products.”
So what happened to Apple in 2012? Do these differences between the end and the beginning of the year indicate this was the year when Apple finally understood that it’s time to become more sustainable?
No matter how you look at it, this was a hectic year for Apple from a sustainable point of view. Time and again, the company learned the limits of its influence, and that even the richest, most powerful company in the world can’t decide the limits of its own responsibility. Others decided Apple’s culpability, whether the company liked it or not.
Apple’s first lesson learned was with Foxconn. Following This American Life’s story, Apple published the names of its suppliers for the first time, and announced it was joining the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The tech leader might have thought this would be enough, but it wasn’t. With more articles appearing in the New York Times profiling the “human costs” that go into the making of Apple’s iPad, and online petitions that gained popularity calling the company to act more responsibly, Apple eventually agreed to ask the FLA to audit its supply chain.
But, that wasn’t the end of it. In September, the New York Times reported that Foxconn used forced student labor to make iPhones. A month later Foxconn acknowledged hiring teenagers as young as 14, in breach of national law.
The second lesson came with the company’s attempt to withdraw from EPEAT. As we reported last July, Apple in a surprising move, pulled out of EPEAT, a green consumer electronics rating system. It meant that Apple would no longer submit its products for green certification by EPEAT and that it was pulling its 39 certified laptops, desktops and monitors from the registry.
The reason was assumed to be Apple’s new MacBook Pro with Retina display, which does not meet EPEAT disassembly criteria – its glass display is fused with the top of the case, while the battery is glued to the bottom. Yet, growing public criticism over this step taught the company a valuable lesson once again, and within days it backpedaled and did something very rare – admitted it made a mistake.
“We’ve recently heard from many loyal Apple customers who were disappointed to learn that we had removed our products from the EPEAT rating system. I recognize that this was a mistake. Starting today, all eligible Apple products are back on EPEAT,” wrote Bob Mansfield, Apple’s senior VP of hardware engineering. Returning wasn’t as smooth as Apple probably hoped it would be with Greenpeace criticizing EPEAT for eventually giving gold ratings to Apple’s new MacBook Pro (you can read EPEAT’s response here).
In between the Foxconn and EPEAT stories, Apple managed to fight with Greenpeace over how clean the power is for Apple’s data centers, the company was accused of exploiting its own store employees, and also denounced as one of the top 10 companies that don’t report on their carbon emissions to the CDP.
As you can see, it wasn’t a boring year for Apple when it comes to sustainability. One of the things we saw very clearly in 2012 was the insufficiency of Apple’s CSR strategy. Prof. Gregory Unruh of Harvard described it as “reactive” and called it the “Little Dutch Boy” strategy, meaning that Apple acts only when a problem comes up, hoping, like the little Dutch boy, that poking its fingers in the holes in a dyke will stem the flow, avert disaster, and let the company go back to its business.
Yet, with all of the troubles Apple went through, there is reason to be optimistic as we look forward to 2013. 2012 very much represented Apple under the leadership of Steve Jobs, where the company only adopted sustainability to the extent it was a fit with its culture. It meant publishing the carbon footprints of every new product, but not reporting to the CDP, making new products greener but making their update cycles shorter, releasing an impressive code of conduct for its suppliers but having very little patience for engaging in a dialogue with stakeholders, and so on. In other words, this was still Steve Jobs’ version of CSR for good and, unfortunately, very much for bad.
The new CEO, Tim Cook, seems to have a different approach and unlike Jobs he is operating in a much more demanding environment. The combination of these two elements doesn’t mean Apple will become a sustainability leader in 2013, but it means there is a good chance that Apple actually learned a lesson or two from 2012. What do you think?
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.