An open letter to the next Steve Jobs

In light of new criticisms of Apple’s supply-chain management in China, international CSR consultant Joshua Wickerham has written an open letter to the IT giant’s – soon to be refreshed – leadership. This is an updated version of the original text, published on 10 July.

Dear Apple,

That I wrote this letter is as unexpected as it is important. I abandoned most of my activist rhetoric in college, deciding to stake a career on working to cultivate enlightened corporate self-interest as the quickest way to a sustainable world. I usually work with and for corporations to help them be green, responsible and competitive. So don’t take this letter as an attack from an environmental purist.

I wrote this letter as a warning about the trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.  Before my most recent trip to China, before Ma Jun of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs gave me a sneak peak at the damaging evidence of environmental degradation from your suppliers being released, I had assumed that you had your China supply chain under control. I had assumed that the social unrest at the Foxconn factories had woken you up to the importance of implementing strict social and environmental principles in factories that manufacture your magical products. I thought your initially passive attitude toward the sourcing of conflict minerals in your electronic circuitry was really just a cover while you scrambled to work with industry initiatives, government regulators and suppliers to prevent guilt by association. Your 2011 “Supplier Responsibility” Progress Report on supplier social responsibility and sourcing certainly signals your intentions. You wrote that you require that “suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.”

Nevertheless, what Ma Jun showed me is shocking. I was so saddened by the evidence of your supply chain environmental mismanagement that I wrote this letter (now updated) and posted it online. Ma Jun, head of one of China’s most prominent environmental organisations, has been in contact with you and offered to help you clean up your supply chain, but you have chosen to ignore his offer.

What is going on? Do you assume that Chinese civil society is too weak to expose you, or that your non-Chinese customers fail to care about the inhabitants of hard-to-pronounce Chinese factory towns? Or that your growing Chinese customers won’t find out? Are you expecting just to hide this information?

You are running out of time to make amends before your brand takes a beating like that experienced by Nike in the late 1990s when it ignored accusations that its products were produced using sweatshop labour. Think different. How you respond to the truth is going to sway a lot of your faithful, your bottom line and your brand.

Here’s what you should do:

1) Take responsibility. Publicly and immediately declare that you’re going to stop the pollution in your supplier factories. Then do whatever it takes to fulfil your promises.

2) Make your principles match your image. Make your manufacturing base as slick as your latest miracle products, your supplier factories’ discharge as clean as your website and stores.

3) Increase transparency. Open up your supply chain to NGOs, the media and regulators. They’re not going to steal or sell your trade secrets. They’ll even help you regain public trust by being your eyes and ears to prevent future horrors. Make deals with these groups so they’ll go to you to find solutions before they go to the media.

4) Be a leader and transform the sector. Use third party verified standards or codes of conduct that will prove you’re doing a better job than your competitors so they need to follow your sustainability leadership. Donate money to NGOs so they can monitor your competitors too. Are you really so behind the times that you are willing to let PC manufacturers continue to outshine you?

5) Measure results and communicate: Show progress in a measured way. Leading chemical companies manage their supply chain pollution better than you and show year-on-year improvements. You’ve gotten off easy because people do not readily associate your products with poisoning the earth, but that is changing.

6) Label your products as environmentally friendly. Promote standards like the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) that measure a basket of social and environmental indicators and present that information at the point of sale with labels ranging from gold to silver to bronze. Use other third party certifications that scrutinize factory activity. If you don’t take responsibility for this, other companies are going to seek even higher ratings and outshine you.

7) Apologise. Nobody’s perfect, even a California tech god like yourselves.

8) Act quickly. One rotten apple…well, we really don’t want that to happen.

I don’t mean to be harsh and I’ve tried to be constructive. The terms are really very simple. Be the kind of change your customers want you to be or soon they won’t be your customers, no matter how great the products. The facts speak for themselves.

Respectfully yours,

Joshua Wickerham