Poison Apple

With the slew of 2009 heavy metal incidents spurring both the public and government into action, Ma Jun considered how IPE could contribute to the momentum. Much of the heavy metal pollution came from mines and smelters, state-owned operations that would be hard to crack. But another major source—IT manufacturers—appeared to be an easier target.

Like many people, Ma had once thought of the IT industry as “clean.” He learned it was anything but. Battery- and circuit board-makers dumped wastewater containing nickel, copper, chromium and lead into China’s waterways. In Guangdong province, where much of the industry was concentrated, environmental authorities calculated that more than 12,000 tons of heavy metals and arsenic flowed into the Pearl River Delta in 2008 alone. Dozens of IT facilities inspected that year were found to be breaking environmental regulations.

Nearly 50 percent of the world’s computers, cell phones and digital cameras were manufactured in China. The largest tech brands, including BT, Siemens, Samsung, Sony and Apple, sourced their parts from Chinese original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). While the MNCs had public commitments to environmental and social responsibility, they relied on suppliers with laxer policies. Indeed, because the MNCs tended to choose OEMs based solely on price and quality, the suppliers had an incentive to short-cut environmental controls in order to offer the lowest prices possible. The OEMs in turn sourced from third-tier suppliers that were even further removed from the MNCs.

Ma and his colleagues wanted to expand the MNCs’ sphere of responsibility to include second- and third-tier suppliers. Using the database of citation records, and researching the violators to find out who their largest buyers were, IPE was able to link hundreds of delinquent Chinese OEMs to over 30 international brands. As it had done for the earlier (and ongoing) green supply-chain initiative, IPE approached MNCs and local companies with its findings. But starting in April 2010, it also published industry-specific rankings of the IT, telecoms and battery sectors and released media-ready reports. It gave the same treatment to the textiles and garments sector, another emitter of heavy metals and toxic chemicals. Comparing MNCs within a sector gave people greater context, and placed more pressure on the biggest polluters. No one wanted to be ranked below the competition (see Appendix 2).

For companies that did not respond to its communications, IPE published contact details in its reports, and urged consumers to appeal directly to the MNCs’ corporate responsibility officers. One after another, the big brands moved from being silent to responsive to proactive. Some became industry leaders in using the data to monitor and clean up their supply chains.

Apple . The last holdout was Apple. Chinese manufacturers that claimed to supply Apple had been issued environmental citations. Yet Apple would not acknowledge that the companies were indeed suppliers, citing a policy of keeping supplier information secret. Apple would not divulge whether it was following up on the information provided by IPE. When an NGO tweeted at Apple CEO Steve Jobs about a rash of suicides at Foxconn, a major Chinese supplier to Apple, Jobs responded by directing him to Apple’s corporate social responsibility website, saying “You should educate yourself. We do more than any other company on the planet.” [27] In Ma’s view, there was a mismatch between Apple’s international image of responsibility and its secretiveness about operations in China. He was determined to make Apple open up.

iPhone 4 and cases

Apple was of particular concern to Ma and IPE not only because it was one of the largest IT companies in the world, but because it had already been publicly accused by Chinese workers of sickening them with toxic chemicals. In January 2010, employees at a Chinese subsidiary of Wintek, a company headquartered in Taiwan that made LCD displays for Apple, went public with claims that they had sickened from n -hexane, a chemical made from crude oil used to clean touch screens. In January 2011, a year after it began contacting the tech MNCs, IPE published The Other Side of Apple , a report that delved deep into the company’s supply chain. When this still elicited no response, IPE in August 2011 published a second report that listed additional suppliers in violation of Chinese environmental standards. [28] IPE and its partners went further, launching a media campaign, dubbed “Poison Apple,” urging consumers to pressure the company. “We’re not trying to single out any company,” Ma said in an interview on the PBS Newshour . “Apple singled out itself through the process by shutting down the door of communication entirely.” [29]

The Wintek plant in Suzhou had switched from alcohol to n -hexane because it dried faster. But without proper ventilation in the dust-free “clean rooms,” workers were breathing toxic fumes. They reported symptoms common to n -hexane exposure: dizziness, weakness, falling over and, in extreme cases, paralysis. After only a few months on the job, dozens were hospitalized. Fearing long-term disability, workers staged a walkout of several hours, which received media attention. In May 2010, Wintek announced that it had stopped using n -hexane and had compensated the stricken workers. But Apple would not confirm any of this—or even that Wintek was its supplier.

But the IPE reports and associated consumer campaign finally had an impact. In September 2011, Apple approached IPE and its NGO partners and began a drive to clean up its supply chain. To Collins, the episode epitomized two aspects of Ma Jun’s personality: “very diplomatic” and “very determined.” He explains:

He’s very good at talking to different people. So he’s able to talk to Chinese government and foreign government people, and business, other NGOs. I think that his approach of being able to communicate with different organizations, and being able to communicate with foreign organizations as well, has been quite important to IPE’s development.

Collins on Ma Jun's diplomatic skill

For example, says Collins, after the first report “it seemed to me like we were coming to the point where you just hit a brick wall. There was complete silence from them, and they weren’t going to respond.” Yet Ma pushed ahead with a second report. Recalls Collins:

And I was thinking maybe we’re never going to get anywhere with them. But it paid off, definitely. Because the morning of the release of the second report, they finally decided that they would start talking to us.

[27] IPE et al. , IT Investigative Report Phase IV: The Other Side of Apple (January 2011), 4. See: http://www.ipe.org.cn/Upload/Report-IT-V-Apple-I-EN.pdf

[28] IPE et al . , The Other Side of Apple II: Pollution Spreads through Apple’s Supply Chain , August 2011. See: http://www.ipe.org.cn/Upload/Report-IT-V-Apple-II-EN.pdf

[29] PBS Newshour , April 12, 2011. See transcript: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world-jan-june11-china_04-13/