Apple: back under the spotlight

In an investigative report, Chinese green NGOs claim that the consumer electronics giant has not addressed problems in its supply chain and ignored an expanding environmental footprint in China – with grave consequences. Meng Si reports.

Severe pollution in Apple’s Chinese supply chain is poisoning the environment and threatening public health, a coalition of green campaigners said today as it published the results of a seven-month investigation into the IT giant’s China operations. In the latest phase of their campaign to get the leading US brand to confront pollution caused by manufacturers of laptop and smartphone components, the Chinese NGOs said they have found problems at as many as 27 suspected Apple suppliers – but the corporation has failed to respond openly to questions and make its supplier information public.

The report, The Other Side of Apple II – Pollution Spreads through Apple’s Supply Chain [pdf], includes findings from 10 on-site investigations of suppliers, suspected suppliers and other links in the supply chain. These include: Meiko Electronics of Guangzhou, Meiko Electronics of Wuhan, Kaedar Electronics and Unimicron, Foxconn of Taiyuan, Ibiden Electronics of Beijing and Shenzhen Municipal Hazardous Waste Treatment Station. The publication is the second update this year on the results of an ongoing investigation into the social and environmental impacts of Apple’s suppliers fronted by environmentalist Ma Jun (the first was published in January).

Launching the report in Beijing, the NGOs behind the campaign – Friends of Nature, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Green Stone – said they had uncovered cases of severe environmental damage and serious complaints from local communities. According to the report, some of the suspected Apple suppliers produce huge quantities of dangerous waste, which they seem unable to deal with.

Meiko Electronics of Wuhan, central China, is a printed circuit board manufacturing subsidiary of Japanese firm Meiko Electronics. Its major customers include Apple, Motorola and Siemens. In April 2011, staff from IPE and Friends of Nature’s Wuhan branch went to investigate pollution at the plant. They found a 150-metre ditch running from the east side of the facility to Nantaizi Lake, filled with a milky-white liquid. For a stretch of several dozen metres, the water of Nantaizi was a grey-white colour, covered with white foam and dark floating objects. This polluted water flows directly into the Yangtze River.

In June, lawyer Zeng Xiangbin from Friends of Nature’s Wuhan branch and the Pony Testing Company analysed a sample of liquid from the ditch. Chemical oxygen demand (a measure of water pollution) was 192 milligrams per litre: 4.8 times the Category V standard for surface water quality – the worst category – indicating the water is unsafe for use for any purpose. Nantaizi Lake fish farmer Wan Zhengyou said: “My generation is drinking polluted water; the next will have only poisoned water to drink.”

Kaedar Electronics and Kunshan Unimicron Electronics are located in the Jiangsu city of Kunshan, in eastern China. According to media reports, the former is an Apple supplier and the latter is a suspected supplier. In April 2011, staff from IPE and Nanjing Green Stone visited the area. Locals told them that the foul-smelling gases from the plant sometimes left them unable to open their windows and woke them up at night. Eight-year-old Tong Haiyi said to the investigators: “Sometimes when I come back and study I get a really sore chest, and when [my mother comes] to pick me up I feel really dizzy. And sometimes there’s a really strange smell in class.” His mother told the team that he often suffered from headaches, dizziness and nosebleeds.

Unit 8 of Tongxin village is on the other side of the factory wall. Residents there produced a list of local people suffering from cancer. Since 2007, unit 8 has seen nine people out of a population of around 50 contract the disease. Locals said that over the past decade, the once clear stream by the village has turned black as ink: for years, the electronics firms have discharged waste water and gas and created noise pollution. The villagers have tried to talk to the factory, but could not gain access; they spoke to the local government, but the firm always seemed to have advance information about testing – the bad smells usually cleared up just before an inspection began.

During the investigation Zhu Guifen, a villager who had her stomach removed due to cancer, held a bottle filled with polluted water as she and around a dozen older villagers unexpectedly knelt in front of the NGO workers and begged for help.

Apple supplier Foxconn became the focus of global attention last year after a spate of worker suicides. The new report claims that three of its factories have broken environmental rules. On May 20, an explosion at Foxconn’s Hongfujin Chengdu factory – which manufactures the iPad2 – killed three workers and injured 15. It subsequently came to light that the plant’s eight buildings, covering 250 mu (more than 166,000 square metres) had been constructed in only 76 days. According to the report, this rate of construction poses serious challenges for controlling pollution and ensuring safety. There are questions about how the company could have cleared Apple’s auditing process, which is led by one of its vice-presidents.

The investigators claim that, despite the information provided by the NGOs on environmental problems at as many as 27 suspected Apple suppliers, the US firm did not respond to a single pollution incident in its 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report. Its only nod to questions from environmental groups was to admit that Wintek, where workers suffered n-hexane poisoning when cleaning iPhone touch-screens, was a supplier.

The latest NGO report accuses Apple of failing to respond openly to questions and make its supplier information public. It argues that, while this type of behaviour used to be standard among international companies – who chose suppliers on price and could ignore environmental performance, often claiming they had little information to rely on – practices have changed as greater transparency in China has increased access to environmental data. Many companies now use that information to prevent pollution from their global manufacturing base.

Despite specific allegations about its suppliers, the report says that Apple remains evasive and sticks to the line that its non-disclosure of supplier information is a long-term policy. Many records of breaches by IT suppliers are already public – but, say the green groups, Apple refuses to address the problems and appears to continue using polluting firms as suppliers. The first part of the report in January claimed to reveal pollution and exposure to toxins in Apple’s supply chain, yet the NGOs say that today Apple still has not responded to their questions.

Over the past year, environmental groups have urged 29 Chinese and foreign IT companies to improve supervision of their supply chains, and the vast majority have shown that they appreciate the importance of the task. For example, the report lists mobile phone company Nokia as one brand that uses publicly available data to help prevent pollution being caused by its global manufacturing chain.

Some argue that multinationals do not have the ability to oversee the environmental performance of firms they outsource work to. But this report claims that the kind of procurement carried out by Apple and similar brands does not allow for this excuse – Apple is closely involved with management of its supply chain, from the use of materials to its control of dust-free environments for production processes. Therefore, the groups argue that Apple has a responsibility to reveal and explain how much impact that involvement has on pollution and public health.

Figures from the China Household Electronic Appliance Association show that around one half of all computers, mobile phones and digital cameras are made in China. The electronics manufacturing industry is a source of heavy-metal pollution and globalisation has led to the rapid relocation of much of that industry to China. The drive for profit and weak government supervision means the industry can create grave pollution problems. One fifth of China’s arable land has already been polluted by heavy metals. The latest report from green NGOs is one more reason to feel pessimistic about the future.


Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office

Homepage image shows the NGO investigation team near Nantaizi Lake