A recent report by noted Chinese environmental activist Ma Jun lauded Apple for the swift and decisive transformation of its environmental policies. The firm, which has traditionally been reluctant to work with industry groups on issues of environmental compliance, has become a proactive member of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.
The group, headed by Ma, approached 29 brands about cooperating on environmental work, and 28 responded – all but Apple. Ma’s group followed that by publishing two reports that were highly critical of the international computing giant. Then, Ma says, everything changed. “They approached us. They said, ‘We need transparency.'”
Ma’s group now praises Apple for its shifts, which may be tied to the rise of CEO Tim Cook, following the death of Steve Jobs. Cook worked as a supply chain officer for years, spending time in China. He has long been receptive to mutually supportive industry collaboration, in a way that Jobs was not.
Apple is a bellwether for corporate social responsibility. While the firm claims that their labor and environment records are very good, the shift toward transparency could cause other IT firms and, ultimately, other international brands to open up their records and embrace cooperation. When Apple pressured supplier Foxconn to improve working conditions and raise wages, the changes quickly percolated throughout the Chinese economy. Overall, wages have risen and conditions have improved, as smaller firms find themselves competing with each other to lure talented workers, and large firms like Foxconn set the industry standards.
These changes and the costs involved can have a negative impact on the garment and apparel industry by raising the cost of labor hand. But environmental innovations often carry productivity benefits, particularly in more sophisticated synthetics manufacturing, where waste capture and process can yield valuable raw materials. Building a culture of openness can make it easier for firms to justify capturing those efficiencies.