More on Apple and manufacturing in China.

Last week I posted on the bizarre spectacle of Apple’s fanboys rallying to the defense of their favorite computer company on the occasion of a negative Daily Telegraph story on Apple’s safety, environmental, and labor record in China. To my surprise, the post generated a significant amount of traffic and – best of all – a really good, fan-boy free comment thread. I think the most interesting theme that emerges in the discussion is whether or not Apple has really accomplished anything by disclosing the failings of its suppliers. Supporters of Apple, obviously, think it’s worth noting positively; others (me included) see it more as a PR stunt that deflects attention from the company’s worsening record. Anyway, I wasn’t going to say much more about the topic, but this morning I woke to a new comment on the thread (#16), left by Jesse Covner who blogs at Taikongren’s Advice (based in Suzhou). It’s worth reading the entire comment thread, but it’s the last two paragraphs that I find most interesting, and which go far in answering some of the questions I’ve had on this subject in the last few days. In the first paragraph, Covner refers to Foxconn, one of Apple’s suppliers:

So getting back to Apple and Foxconn. Foxconn is a huge volume contract manufacture which offers lowest rates by strictly controlling costs and offering economies of scale. Meaning… less likely to hire good local managers. Less likely to invest enough in safety equipment. Less likely to look too closely at their vendors’ EHS compliance. This is the manufacturer which Apple choose. NOT every phone maker manufactures in this way. Nokia and Samsung have their own factories in China. They control their vendors better because of this. I believe that Motorola either has their own factory or uses long-time SOE vendors… but anyway, Motorola – the inventor of Six Sigma – gives extensive training to its vendors. [Shanghai Scrap note: I’ve been to Chinese facilities that supply Motorola and that don’t – to put it lightly – meet Six Sigma.]

In the next paragraph, Covner makes a point that’s so obvious that it’s a wonder that nobody appears to have brought it up in the context of this discussion yet (willing to be corrected on this point, though).

Another thing to note from the article. “Apple said it had required the factories to “perform immediate inspections of their wastewater discharge systems” and hire an independent environmental consultant to prevent future violations.” [Covner is referring to the Daily Telegraph article which started the whole discussion, and the Apple compliance report upon which much of it based]. So Apple is not using their own inspectors to investigate. They are not paying this fee… they are requiring the vendors to hire their own inspector. That’s not how its supposed to work. The wastewater systems need to be certified by government approved inspectors. And since inspectors can (conceivably) be bribed, it should be Apple’s own Compliance Team which investigates.

Speaking for myself, and not Covner, this strikes me as a good answer to those who claim that Apple deserves credit for disclosing its own failings. That is to say, Apple’s efforts are worth taking seriously when it gets around to paying its own compliance team to do investigations and remediation – rather than relying on their suppliers to do it for them.

[UPDATE: That’s it. New ground-rules that go like this: PR flacks are welcome to comment in defense of their employers and clients. However, PR flacks that post without identifying their employers or clients, and whom I can readily identify via their IP addresses, will be outed. You know who you are (two of your comments were just deleted), and y’all really ought to be smart enough to have a VPN or use tor, anyway. Sheesh.]

5 comments

  1. Adam.

    See the news that another Foxconn employee jumped out the window yesterday?

    What amazes me about the entire brewhaha, and why I largely gave up posting, is that the journalists with traction are jsut happy with Apple’s sexed up glossy report and cannot even read the thing in a manner that one would consider sofisticated.

    Me.. when I read the report, and read “our suppliers tell us we are the only ones who have inspected”, I nearly laughed. Everything was set up from the start to favor their own reports. they relied on suppliers to provide the data, and thrid party contractors, rather than their own people and common sense.. and not that that is necessarily a crime, but when you have had as many social/ environmental failures as they have had with Foxconn and Wintech, they certainly have shown little real interest in fixing the problems.

    They are just checking boxes for the sake of checking boxes.

  2. Wow. I just started getting into the blogging thing and I get recognition. Interesting to see my name on a website that I didn’t write. Thank you for the recognition.

    FYI, I really don’t have any reason to believe that Apple’s production is any more or less EHS compliant than any other company which manufactures…in low-cost Taiwanese-run contract manufacturers.

    A couple of smaller points…

    1. I really don’t believe that Foxconn is causing employees to commit suicide. I really think that would be unfair to say. Yet… Its not like they are going to do much for the mental health of their employees either.

    2. About 8 years ago, when I lived in Silicon Valley, a headhunter called me and asked me if I was interested in working for Foxconn ( I had experience managing a sales channel selling connectors…and that time Foxconn was known as a low-end PC connector manufacturer). The recruiter emailed me and said “By-the-way, you are a white guy, right? No offence, but this is a sales position, and my client does not think a black man or woman can do this job”. I went on the interview just to ascertain who the client was. Point is… this company has a historical “values problem”.

    3. Does not surprise me that Motorola’s vendors don’t use Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a fad. Its basically scientific method combined with some statistical analysis tools. Very helpful for large, complicated problems with lots of data points. Most companies would do better investing in leadership training, or improving their hiring practices than investing in Six Sigma training projects.

  3. Hear that sound? It’s the sound of local government officials in Suzhou rushing to protect Foxconn, ie the golden goose.

  4. @Felton
    I’m not saying there is no corruption in Suzhou. But the citizens here are affluent and will get a message across to the government in many ways if publicly “dirty” things start happening in factories.

    On the other hand, the Wintek eventreferenced in the Telegraph article seems much more serious. I have not heard of anyone investigating Wintek, but I have not asked around or looked at local news either. Would have been cool to see the 2000 person protest (not far from where I live) too.

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