Saturday, June 26, 2010

Can the iPad be "green" if it is manufactured in a sweatshop?

Would you consider the iPad as environmentally sound if it was manufactured in a sweatshop? It might sound a theoretical question - I mean, can this advanced device that for many represent freedom, democracy and greater opportunities of be made in an exploiting working environment that represent for many of us the dark ages?

Well, given the latest news about Foxconn, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer, which is the maker of iPhones and iPads for Apple, this question may be more relevant and realistic than ever.

Today, on the fourth and last part of our analysis of the iPad's environmental report, we'll refer to an important part that is actually missing from this report, but is included in another Apple's report - Social responsibility.

First, let's be clear - we believe that environmental and social performance are interconnected and the discussion about the iPad as a better option from a sustainable point of view (or "green") can not exclude the social issue. The Worldwatch Institute explained it very clearly:

"Environmental sustainability requires social sustainability... Environmentalists need to be as aware of the social dimensions of sustainability—well-versed in issues like living wages or occupational health and safety—as labor representatives are mindful of the environmental dimensions."

Now, Apple doesn't refer to the specific social impacts of each of their products separately, but provide an annual general supplier responsibility report. Apple explains its commitment as follows:

Apple is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility wherever our products are made. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes.

Apple’s program is based on our comprehensive Supplier Code of Conduct, which outlines our expectations for the companies we do business with. We evaluate compliance through a rigorous auditing program and work proactively with our suppliers to drive change.

This is very impressive. The report itself also looks very impressive not to say progressive. It mentions for example that Apple "continued to increase the number of facilities audited for compliance with Apple’s Code, completing onsite audits of 102 facilities in 2009, for a total of 190 individual facilities audited since 2007," and that the company "implemented a social responsibility train-the-trainer program for all of Apple’s final assembly manufacturers. Since the launch of this initiative, more than 133,000 workers, supervisors, and managers have been trained on workers’ rights and management’s responsibility."

Impressive, right? Only that the series of suicidesat Foxconn indicate things in reality might be different. First, it looks a bit problematic that Apple assembles the iPad (as well as the iPhone) in a place with such a bad reputation when it comes to working standards. Li Qiang, executive director of New York-based China Labor Watch, wrote last May that "Foxconn is a sweatshop that “tramples” workers’ personal values for the sake of efficiency."

Even the China Daily Newspaper was critical and as reported on BusinessWeek it wrote in an editorial that “Foxconn may not be a sweatshop in the sense that it physically abuses its employees or forces them to work extra hours. That does not mean it is showing enough humanitarian concern for its employees. And, neither does it imply that it is doing enough to foster a corporate culture that helps employees strike a healthier work-life balance.”

The Guardian reported that "labour campaigners argue that Foxconn's mostly migrant workers are vulnerable because of their 10-hour working days and the monotony of their jobs. They say many feel isolated and pressured by a strict regime that bans them from speaking on the production line and takes them far away from their families. They argue that although the basic salary of 900 yuan (£91) per month is above the legal minimum, workers find it hard to live on and are driven to labour for 60 hours a week to gain overtime pay."

It should be noted that Apple responded quickly. reported on May 26 that Apple is "expressing sadness at the events and promising that it is "independently evaluating" Foxconn's response while also continuing its facility inspections summarized in its annual supplier responsibility progress report."We're in direct contact with Foxconn senior management and we believe they are taking this matter very seriously," said Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman. "A team from Apple is independently evaluating the steps they are taking to address these tragic events and we will continue our ongoing inspections of the facilities where our products are made.""

It might looks to you like this is the first time Apple needs to deal with such issues in Foxconn. Well, it doesn't. Four years ago, In June 2006, Engadget reported the following:

Despite recent comments by a Foxconn spokesperson that Apple had already investigated and found no problems with the Chinese factory that has come to be known as "iPod City," BusinessWeek is reporting that the probe is still in fact underway, with an Apple representative reiterating that the company takes "allegations of noncompliance very seriously."

According to spokesperson Steve Dowling,
Apple is in the midst of a "thorough audit" of the Hon Hai-owned plant, which had recently admitted to breaking labor laws concerning overtime, but which continues to deny other allegations contained in the original Daily Mail exposé. Specifically, Dowling says that the auditors are looking into "employee working and living conditions," conducting interviews with workers and their managers (separately, we hope), and generally making sure that the factory lives up to a supplier code of conduct that supposedly "sets the bar higher than accepted industry standards."

So what was the auditors' final verdict back then? Engadget updated on August 2006:

The long and short of it is Apple apparently did not find child or forced labor, learned that more than half of iPod city residents were earning more than minimum wage (and none below), and that there was no forced overtime, but it was found that workweeks too infrequently went long (as often as 35% of the time), some interim dorms for the workers sounded pretty harsh (think: rows of triple bunk-beds on a factory floor), and some workers were "made to stand at attention" when they did something wrong.

So as you can see these issues are far from being new to Apple. So why does the company continue to work with Foxconn? The answer is very simple: Low prices. Good quality.
Pamela Gordon of Technology Forecasters, a supply-chain research firm explained it on Business week:

"It's the prices. Their prices are lower for high-quality work." Foxconn won Apple's order to make the iPhone after Gou directed the business units that make components to sell parts at zero profit, according to two people familiar with the chairman's actions. Net income jumped 37 percent in 2009 to $2.3 billion, Foxconn's second-best year on record.

Wondering how cheap manufacturing the iPad could get at Foxconn? According to analysis of iSuppli the manufacturing cost of the 3G-wireless version of the iPad is $11.20.

To be fair, we have to remind that physical books production has its own social toll. The Green Press Initiative reminds us that "From the pine and spruce forests of the Canadian Boreal, to the tropical rainforests of Indonesia, there are people who rely on forests to support a traditional means of sustenance, spiritual connection, and economic development. Forests are used for lumber and commerce, gathering food and medicine, and for hunting and trapping." More information about the social impacts of the paper industry can be found in a paper published by the Environmental Paper Network. It was published 3 years ago, but unfortunately still very relevant.

So what's the bottom line? Is the iPad "good" or "bad" when we look into its social impacts? And is it better from physical books from this aspect?

We feel that there's a problem here. Apple created a very progressive code of conduct and like its environmental reports, its
supplier responsibility report is something that other companies that sell e-readers don't have. So Apple is definitely one step ahead. At the same time, it looks like in reality the iPad is being manufactured in a place where the working environment are described by some as sweatshop, while others use more subtle terms to describe it such as "tough culture".

BusinessWeek summarize it saying that "
Foxconn's suicides are a reminder of the human cost that can come with the low-cost manufacturing U.S. tech companies demand." Does it worth it? We believe the answer is no, just like it was with Nike and Gap in the past. I don't know if the answer is necessarily to move the production of the iPad back to the United States as Gilbert B. Kaplan offered lately, but there's definitely need to be a change. If the iPad wants to become a greener alternative, it needs to be made in working environment that is not exploitative.

Regarding the comparison with books - there are no metrics to use here unlike the ones you have in a life cycle assessment, but we can say that both options have serious social impacts when considering their 'business as usual' conduct.

Yet, we see some progress in the last couple of years in the paper industry, especially with the growing usage of forest management systems, including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification that is considered the best practice. These systems are supposed to make sure that the concerns of indigenous and local communities are integrated into forest plans and assessments. And of course, growing usage of recycled paper that reduce the need to cut down trees is helpful as well.

Bottom line: No matter how low the carbon footprint of the iPad may be, or how good and efficient their recycling program is, the iPad wouldn't become a "greener" or more sustainable option comparing to books until Apple will really hold to its promise to be committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility wherever our products are made. Right now, we're just not there yet.

Parts on the analysis published so far:
Part 1 - the iPad's Carbon footprint

Part 2 - Recycling

Part 3 - Materials

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Promoting Sustainable Reading!