The furore over Apple’s “failures” to ensure labour and environmental standards compliance in its supply chain continues, with protests outside Apple stores, petitions online to “tell Apple how you feel” and an increasing number of high-profile expose-type articles looking at conditions in Apple’s suppliers.
The counterparts to exposes and complaints are suggestions on what should be done so that Apple can achieve better results. This is where it gets interesting, not so much for what it reveals about Apple’s dilemma but rather about the importance of perspective in framing problems and solutions.
For a country so known for calls to “shrink the government” it is surprising to see so many voices in the US calling for various forms of regulation. Jeffrey Kaye suggests that “better regulation of the global supply chain” by a government agency could solve the problem, and that suppliers who do not comply have to “face the consequences.” Leanne Tobias says that Apple should invest in “enhanced monitoring and enforcement” on its supply chain, ie, that Apple would play the role of the regulator, and only sell products that it can certify.
Consumers seem to believe that “suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.” In other words, they don’t see beyond the product and assume that supply chain standards are the outcomes of policy and audits.
Of course policy is important, but it can be effective only insofar as it is relevant to the conditions under which it is applied. Audits are necessary but they cannot force compliance to standards set from afar. In other words, putting more money into auditing, or testing, won’t change the conditions – which are defined by a complex mix of external factors like prevailing wage rates as well as internal business drivers. These can’t be changed overnight, nor can they be driven solely by consumers in the US. The process must be collaborative, and realistic.
This is clear to people who work in supply chains in developing Asia, where conditions like those in Foxconn are “normal” given developmental differences and the dynamics of international trade. Most suppliers are not willfully non-compliant, but circumstances may force different results. Raising standards requires concerted education, capacity building and training, backed by progressive changes in an international system to ensure a more equitable sharing of gains from global trade.
This is a process that can’t be driven by headlines or standards, without an understanding of conditions on the ground. Apple already has programmes to help suppliers and workers raise their performance. Perhaps we should think about how to improve or extend these rather than looking for another series of tests and labels so that consumers can feel good about their gadgets.