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Apple's New Supply Chain List is a Cry for Help

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency

When Apple, Inc. - or for that matter, any other company - publishes the names of its suppliers, it's a pretty good sign that the company is putting pressure on its supply chain to up the ante on sustainable practices. But the pressure doesn't just come from the company alone. In effect, a supplier list is a call to action, challenging consumers and other stakeholders to push for change throughout the industry.  Apple has in fact just published a list of its suppliers, and that new transparency could indicate that the notoriously secretive company is adopting a new willingness to open up and reach out for help in taking its corporate social responsibility initiatives to the next level.

Apple and Supply Chain Issues
Apple does have some catching up to do when it comes to supply chain responsibility, as my colleague Raz Godelnik discussed today in a post about working conditions in factories in China. The company was hit with a series of high-profile shots at its supply chain management last year, particularly regarding facilities in China. In addition to chronicling accusations of environmental contamination and worker maltreatment, a recurring theme of the criticism has been the Apple's lack of transparency. Even in a case where the company did the right thing - last year Apple joined a voluntary boycott of minerals from the conflict zone in eastern Congo - critics have pointed out that new US regulations will make a voluntary boycott moot.

Apple's Environmental Progress Apple's environmental progress report highlights the company's transition to downloadable software, its leadership record of better-than-Energy-Star-efficiency for its products, and its use of renewable plastics for iTunes gift cards last year. None of these three initiatives are particularly groundbreaking or unique in nature, but they do represent another step forward in a long trail of action that dates back to 1990, when Apple released its first environmental policy.

Apple and Corporate Responsibility
Steady progress is all well and good, but other companies such Levi Strauss & Co. are busy staking out identities as CSR boundary-pushers. If Apple continues to play it safe on CSR, it risks being viewed as a foot-dragger, a company that rides on the coat-tails of other companies that have acted more quickly, and more thoroughly. That's not such a great profile for a company that has a reputation as a technology innovator to preserve. In this context, Apple's 2012 supplier responsibility report provides signs that the company is ready to step up its efforts. Among the actions Apple notes are a significant increase in supplier audits (including third-party audits), an emphasis on training and educating suppliers about local regulations as well as Apple's Supplier Code of Conduct, and a system of age verification that Apple describes as "the toughest in the electronics industry."

Naming Names

By publishing its supplier list, Apple runs the risk of opening itself up to new criticism, when its suppliers fail to come up to snuff. Another risk in such disclosure is the potential for being perceived as a company that tries to duck responsibility by deflecting blame onto suppliers. However, by providing a behind-the-curtain look at the nitty gritty of electronics manufacturing, Apple's supplier list provides stakeholders with a new platform for engagement on sustainability and new opportunities to advocate for change. What will make all the difference is the follow-through.

Image: Chain: License Some rights reserved by pratanti.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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