In March 2018, Apple - the world’s most valuable publicly-listed company - released its yearly Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, detailing the advances the brand has made toward a fairer, greener supply chain. The report sheds new light upon an industry usually shrouded in secrecy, writes Kathryn Hindess.
“This factory area is legally established with state approval. Trespassing is prohibited. Offenders will be sent to the police for prosecution!”
This was the stark warning notice that greeted Brian Merchant, author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, when he arrived outside the most notorious manufacturing plant of Apple products: Foxconn’s compound in Shenzhen’s Longhua district, China.
Over the first five months of 2010, there were 18 reported suicide attempts at the Longhua factory, which was run by Apple supplier Foxconn. Media organisations across the world were quick to pick up the story, relaying tales of employees stretched to breaking point by excessive overtime hours and difficult working conditions. Foxconn’s response of installing safety nets at Longhua to dissuade future jumpers did little to allay public unease as images of the large anti-jumping nets, strung up between dormitory buildings, became ubiquitous in press reports.
Although Dell and HP also enjoyed partnerships with Foxconn, it was Apple - due to the high profile of the iPhone - that received the most heavily-concentrated scrutiny. Longhua became the poster child for the failings of outsourcing electronics manufacturing to the developing world, where worker protections are often less stringent.
So why didn’t tech giants sever ties with a supplier that tarnished their reputation? Because the decision to outsource production comes with a number of upsides for the world’s electronics overseers. It’s not just a way of filling piggy banks. Often, as is the case with Apple and Foxconn (also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry) the relationships go beyond that of contractor-subcontractor to resemble fully-fledged business partnerships.
The New York Times reported that when it came to manufacturing the iPhone, Apple executives estimated that it would take 8,700 industrial engineers to oversee production and that just sourcing this number of qualified engineers would take as much as nine months in the USA. In China, it took 15 days.
New York Times reporters Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher said: “Apple executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories, as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers, have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”
Companies like Apple are now investing in overseas suppliers for the long-term, with impressive results. Since 2007, Apple has trained nearly 15 million supplier employees on their working rights. The number of conducted supply chain audits carried out each year has more than doubled from 298 in 2012 to 756 in 2017. And Apple, as of 2017, has introduced a health education program aimed at empowering and educating female workers at its suppliers in China and India. Topics covered include nutrition, personal care and how to self-examine for early cancer detection.
One participant of the programme, Miao Minghui, said: “I have been sharing what I learn in the class about preventative care and women’s health with my mom. As a result, she visited her physician for an annual checkup, something she had stopped doing prior to my taking the class.”
Unfortunately, Apple also revealed in its 2018 Progress Report that it had found 44 cases of “core violations” of its labour policies in 2017, double the number of cases documented the year before. According to Apple, examples of core violations include the presence of underage workers or involuntary labour.
In one instance of debt-bonded labour discovered by Apple in 2017, 700 foreign contract workers recruited from the Philippines were found to have paid placement fees totalling more than US $1M to a labour brokers (Apple confirmed that all the affected workers were reimbursed for these fees).
The accounts aren’t just coming from inside Apple either. Though Apple announced that supplier compliance with its working hours limit had dropped from 98% in 2016 to 94% in 2017, a report published by China Labour Watch (CLW) in January 2018 unearthed one case not covered in Apple’s Progress Report of interns recruited by Apple’s supplier Pegatron in mainland China which CLW found to be working unlawful overtime hours.
Apple should be applauded for the transparency it provides through its Progress Report and for its head-on approach to remedying problems. But, the report’s findings demonstrate that, when it comes to safeguarding human rights, tech companies are not out of the woods yet.
“When we waste nothing, that will truly be something” - Apple, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, 2018
An area in which Apple has perhaps made more headway is its environmental programmes.
In 2017, 5.1 billion gallons of freshwater (that’s the equivalent of 7,725 Olympic size swimming pools) were saved thanks to the efforts of Apple’s supplier partners. Chinese factories participating in Apple’s Clean Water Program boasted an average reuse rate of 37%.
What’s more, 100% of the final assembly facilities for the iPhone today send zero waste to landfill.
Shobha Savalgi, a Zero Waste Instructor at Apple supplier Wistron in India said: “It’s exciting to see how the Zero Waste programme is increasing recycling and waste segregation awareness. I look forward to seeing how Wistron employees will implement their learnings from their Zero Waste training to positively impact the factory, and beyond.”
This sounds good but may seem, on closer inspection, like a sleight of hand from Apple though. The majority of the greenhouse gas emissions for your smartphone will have occurred during its production. If you have an iPhone 8, 64gb model, your usage as a customer corresponds to approximately 16% of your phone’s total greenhouse gas emissions over its life cycle; 80% come from production.
With the amount of electronic waste generated worldwide predicted to hit 49.8 million tonnes in 2018 (electronic waste, by the way, is hazardous waste that often includes toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury) what the world needs now is not necessarily greener phones, but less phones.
A possible path forward is to make our phones last longer. By keeping a smartphone in use for just one more year after you’d normally upgrade, you can cut its CO2 impact by 31%.
On paper, this seems like a pragmatic solution. But Apple isn’t currently the world’s most valuable publicly-listed company just because it has a cute logo. It sells 200 million iPhones a year. And it’s coming under fire in the USA for being one of a number of big players in the tech world that are lobbying against “right to repair” legislation designed to make it easier for consumers to repair and maintain their handsets.
The question on the minds of phone manufacturers currently, then, is not how to ensure suppliers treat people and the planet with respect. It’s how to ensure that suppliers treat people and the planet with respect while rattling off more and more handsets each year to fit in your pocket while maintaining a system that fills corporate pockets too.