Apple released its first 2014 update to its Supplier Responsibility Report Thursday, the company's effort to be transparent about worker safety and conditions, and environmental issues within its supply chain. In that report, Apple said that it launched a water recycling program in 2013, that it increased the number of supply chain audits, and that it trained some 1.5 million workers on their rights.
A Worker Inspecting a MacBook Air Case
Clean Water Program
According to Apple, the Clean Water Program is an effort to not only ensure that Apple suppliers have all the right local permits, but to improve the way those companies process water and to increase water recycling.
"To make sure our suppliers are part of the solution to preserve this resource," the company wrote, "Apple instituted the Clean Water Program to help reduce water usage, promote water recycling, and prevent illegal water pollution within our supply chain."
Apple chose 13 supplier sites to launch the program, sites that, "collectively use more than 41 million cubic meters of water per year. [...] In 2014, we’ll apply the findings and best practices from this pilot program to other suppliers with water-intensive production processes."
With fresh water predicted to be one of the major challenges facing mankind in the 21st century, Apple appears to be in the forefront of Western companies looking at this issue within its supply chain.
According to Thursday's updated report, Apple has dramatically increased the number of audits it conducted on its suppliers in 2013 to 451, an increase of 51 percent over the 298 audits conducted in 2012. It's also an average of 1.23 audits every day of the year.
All told those audits covered sites where 1.5 million people work on making Apple products, and Apple claimed compliance with its standards between 75 percent and 99 percent, as shown in the chart below.
Worker Rights Training
One of the major sources of criticism for Apple has been worker rights and working conditions in the factories owned by Apple's manufacturing partners. One reason so much manufacturing has left the U.S. and moved to the developing world—especially China—is that salaries are a tiny fraction of those earned in the U.S., and because governmental oversight over the environment, pay, overtime, and safety is effectively laughable.
As was the case in the U.S. before labor unions fought back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, today's manufacturing in China is proof that capital—i.e. factory owners—will often try to get away with everything that they can. That includes unsafe worker conditions, insanely long working hours, and work weeks in excess of 80 hours per week.
Apple has held its contractors to a higher standard than local regulations require, and certainly greater than actual conditions on the ground, but not all suppliers have met Apple's requirements, as documented by many activist groups.
To help, Apple has been offering education courses designed to help train workers in their own rights. In 2013, the company said that it trained 1.5 million of its workers on their rights, with a cumulative total of 3.8 million workers receiving rights education since 2007. Both numbers are impressive, and Apple offered this chart to demonstrate progress in this area:
Pressure and Results
Apple began issuing Supplier Responsibility Reports in 2011 in the midst of intense criticism of working conditions at third party manufacturers, particularly in China. While the workers making Apple devices received higher pay than other workers, and while Apple worked harder than other Western electronics firms on maintaining safe worker conditions, Apple's position as the most profitable tech company on the planet made it the focus for activist groups and others interested in worker rights.
Such is corporate life when you make many billions of dollars in profits every quarter—you get held to a far higher standard than the Dells of the world.
At the same time, the reality is that Apple not only stepped up its already best-in-class supplier management efforts, Apple also stepped up its transparency efforts, including this quarterly report.
It remains to be seen if the company gets any credit for its progress, or if Apple's competitors will get anything approaching the same scrutiny from the mainstream press (Hint: they won't).
That said, The New York Times, which has published a number of highly critical pieces about Apple's supply chain, focused on the fact that Apple reported that the tantalum smelters used by its suppliers were conflict-free in a piece that was mostly positive.