Is Apple’s response to workers conditions good enough?

So Apple have announced the biggest audit of the conditions of its supply chain factories of its kind.  They are the first phone manufacturer to sign up to the Fair Labour Association (FLA).  Staff working in Foxconn, the factory used by Apple in China, have had pay rises, in some cases trebling pay over three years to 1,800 – 2,400 yuan a month, which is about £180 to £240.  First reports are that the factories are nice and clean.  The full report is due out in March and we wait with interest to see all the details.  At least something is being done, so can I breathe a sigh of relief?

Well, scratch a little deeper and you’ll see that the FLA have been involved with, up to now, audits of garment factories.  This is a sector with the most appalling reputation in many developing countries.  A computer factory is always going to be cleaner, as computers have to be made in the most sterile environment or they won’t work.

Photo: Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

ABC News’ Nightline TV programme in the US last night showed a documentary on the conditions of workers in an Apple factory.  The factory line is portrayed in its soulless and sterile state.  The workers are completely silent and the only voices are robotic.  The latest news is that Foxconn are considering investing millions in robotic automation.  I guess these robots won’t threaten to jump off the factory roofs, their legs won’t swell after standing for 14 hour shifts and they won’t be requiring social justice anytime soon.

How effective are the audits? The most publicised supplier up to now that has used FLA services is Nike, after a similar spate of bad publicity surrounding its workforce practice.   Their latest audit report reveals that there are still areas of health and safety and social security issues to be addressed.  So improvements take time.  Nike have a target of being fully compliant by 2013.

The supply chain of suffering extends to the Congo, where the highly toxic mineral, Coltan, core to the mobile phone industry, is mined often using child labour who die from disease, starvation and unsafe working conditions.

There are higher standards to aim for than the absence of cruelty and the meeting of basic human rights.   The ISO 26000 produced last year exhorts all businesses to show dignity and respect for their workers.  These things can’t be measured by a tickbox.

Voluntary standards have been adopted by other sectors. The Equator Principles introduced by the banking sector has raised awareness of environmental and social issues amongst businesses.  The Courtauld Agreement has members from  the retail sector who agreed to reduce their packaging.  This has had the result of avoiding over 1.2 million tonnes of food and packaging going to landfill.  I would like to see a similar pact amongst those producing computers and phones to reduce the mining impacts.  Fairtrade reduced the chemicals used in coffee production by 80%.  Let’s call on Apple to do the same for the mining of minerals used in hi- tech industries.

Apple have chosen an evocative image for its brand, all shiny, smelling of New York bustle and American home baked pies. Now the challenge is for Apple to embody the qualities that it so successfully projects.

I, as an Apple user, want to know that my phone is made with the least environmental damage and by a happy workforce. I’d like my phone maker to appear in the top environmental and ethical companies. I want to know that some of their lovely profit is being ploughed back into the communities who produce their polished products. I’d like a Coltan free phone, can Apple lead the way on this? When I sit down with a Fairtrade coffee to make a call I want to know that I am making a positive difference to someone’s life with my phone as well as my coffee.  Is that too much to ask?

If you are asking how your company can be the most ethically responsible it can be, contact Giles@greenbananamarketing.com.  Green Banana Marketing has worked with socially responsible brands like Fairtrade and understands that companies need to practice what they promote and lead by example.  Achieving high ethical and sustainable standards is a journey and Green Banana Marketing is producing step-by-step guides to help you get to your destination. Ask us how.

Giles Robertson is the founder of Green Banana Marketing Ltd and Chairman of the Marketing Society Charity Group.