Dirty Apple, hard to clean

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Shi Yuhan

On January 20, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), in collaboration with other civil-society organisations, published an investigative report on heavy-metal pollution in the IT industry, focusing on US technology giant Apple – and unveiling the company’s darker side. 

According to the report, Apple has violated its own commitments in three respects: environmental protection, occupational health and workers’ rights. Moreover, IPE interviewed several workers from Suzhou United Win Technology (Wintex), a likely Apple supplier, who had been poisoned by N-hexane (a chemical cleaning agent). Afterwards, the NGO released a video related to the inquiry and called on the public to join a campaign against “Apple poison”.

So what do consumers think about the situation? I interviewed some Apple customers to find out their opinions.   “The iPod particularly appeals to young people,” said Zhang Ti, an iPod Nano user. Regarding the Wintex poisoning incidents, Zhang said: “Young people can’t only strive to follow fashion trends and satisfy their desire for new applications. They should also develop a sense of social responsibility. As far as I am concerned, I will firmly boycott Apple products and try to persuade the people around me to do the same.”

iPhone user Gu Xiaofeng said: “I’m glad to be able to connect my iPhone to the Internet through Wi-fi. However, the only annoying thing is that expensive third-party web applications are often required.” When asked about the n-hexane poisoning incidents, he replied: “This is not a problem unique to Apple. Other companies within the IT industry share the same irresponsible attitude. It is therefore necessary to investigate and force them to obey the law.”

It isn’t only young people who are keen on Apple products. University professor Xu Libing said: “I can’t explain why I am so fond of the iPod. I always used to buy electronic products only when I needed them – but with the iPod it was love at first sight. So far, I’ve purchased an iPod Shuffle and an iPod Nano, in addition to large and small iPod speakers and a battery pack. On New Year’s day, I even bought a black iPod classic. I’m aware that I’m behaving irrationally, but it’s because Apple products are perfectly designed to reflect my social status.”  

After looking over the IPE’s report, Xu continued: “I reckon Apple plays an active role in the protection of intellectual-property rights, as I can transfer music to my iPod classic only from iTunes. Nevertheless, although Apple apparently operates as a law-abiding company, it acts deceitfully behind the scenes. It’s a clever rogue with an extensive knowledge of the law and that makes it a challenging enemy to face.”  

Professor Song, another teacher, added: “I’ve always had a positive impression of Apple, which I consider a synonym for advanced technology.” However, after watching the video, Song said: “I’m absolutely astonished, I would never have expected that a well reputed company such as Apple would actually be concealing dark secrets.” In Song’s opinion, if Apple is the only agent engaged in these unscrupulous activities, consumers could react by boycotting its products.  

chinadialogue interviewed Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs: “We hope that Apple consumers will voice their opinions in order to force the company to improve its performance,” he said. “But it’s a difficult challenge, because strong brands like Apple effectively shape public opinion and limit the right to speak freely. For example, the reports related to the company are usually deleted within few hours.”

On January 25, Ma Jun answered netizens’ questions during a live online broadcast on Netease. He pointed out that it is not easy to mobilise consumers to take effective action, because Apple products do not directly harm consumers. They rather poison workers and pollute the environment during the production process. However, confronted with the degradation of our planet, our desire to consume should take second place. If we don’t want our shopping to harm the environment and other people, we as consumers must immediately take action.

A university student said that he sincerely hopes Chinese university groups will stand up against reckless consumerism and voice their opinions about Apple. In other countries, university groups have successfully monitored and promoted various companies’ environmental and social behaviour. “Our hope now rests with Chinese university students,” he finally stated.  

In a phone interview, Liu Huili, researcher at the Daerwen Environmental Institute, said that many netizens have enthusiastically expressed support for an initiative to get people to write open letters to Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, though only few of them have concretely joined it. Liu is not surprised by the public response: “The public awareness of the supply-chain process is still limited, so most netizens thinks that local factories and Apple are unrelated and do not take the campaign seriously. But our environmental organisation will continue to spread information among the public.”  

Liu further explained that the group will continue to appeal to consumers, to help them understand that their actions can affect Apple’s profit, and consequently influence the company response to these kinds of incidents. At the same time, they will continue to gather evidence about Apple’s supply chain. “Some netizens reacted and called into question the existence of the ‘Apple sweatshops’, but we will go to investigate and try to find proof,” Liu said.

Feng Yongfeng, also from the Daerwen Environmental Institute, said that after the Spring Festival, the investigation will follow different lines, because it is not their intention to loosen grip on this situation: “Our professional cause for 2011 is to show how Apple and similar companies can be harmful.”  

On January 18, Apple published the financial results for its fiscal 2011 first quarter (which ended December 31, 2010). In the first quarter of the year, Apple reported revenue of US$26.7 billion and net profits of US$6 billion. Furthermore, the company sold 16.24 million iPhones (up 86% on the same period the previous year), 7.33 million iPads, 4.13 million Macintosh computers and 19.45 million iPods during the quarter.