Morality v. Technology? Don’t Make Me Ditch My iPhone …

Why is it that the world’s coolest brand sees a choice between delivering new culture changing products and delivering them … sustainably? How does Apple get away with such a limited imagination in this day and age?

CEOs of publicly-traded companies in the fashion industry don’t get the “pass” that comes to the super cool Apple leaders and their uber cool company.  Meaning, my shareholders and my consumers insist that we create profit, quarter by quarter, and that we do it … in a sustainable fashion, both in terms of environmental practice, and in terms of transparency and safe working conditions in the supply chain.  Why does a boot maker get held to a higher standard than an iPad maker?

Is it because consumers of iPads and iPhones and iMacs don’t care about how their products are made, about how much energy was used, what chemicals were involved, what impact on the environment the manufacturing process wreaks, or whether the rapidly churned products will end up being recycled or in a landfill at the end of their usable life?  I doubt it.  The elite technology adopters who “wear” their Apple products like a badge of hipster coolness seem to me like the very center of the “moral capitalism” consumer universe—hanging at Davos, orating at TED, elbow rubbing at SXSW.  As a wannabe cool guy, I sit here with my headphones on, listening to my iPod and working on my iPad, wanting to feel as cutting-edge as the technology at my command … but instead, I feel a little sick.  Because a brand that’s seen as a world leader is, in this case, failing to lead.

Apple refuses to set targets for reducing its carbon emissions.  Despite Chinese factory workers falling seriously ill after being exposed to a toxic chemical while manufacturing Apple products, the company remains tight-lipped about its supply chain – presumably prescribing to the belief that that supply chain secrecy is key to competitiveness.  It’s an argument that sounds vaguely familiar: in the last decade, some in the fashion industry pleaded the same argument with activists.  The outcome?  These days everyone knows where Nike and Timberland and adidas manufacture —names, addresses—and the “competitive secret” argument is debunked.  Period. Don’t tell me cool and sustainable aren’t compatible—there are too many examples in the marketplace, earning plaudits from consumers and activists for anyone to believe otherwise.

With success and leadership comes a heightened expectation of responsibility – and Apple is failing that test.  And the worst part?  The company’s “rebel without a corporate responsibility cause” attitude doesn’t seem to hurt it one bit with consumers or investors.

Many of us – myself included – are perpetuating a mind-blowing double standard, proudly browsing the organic produce section and flaunting our recycled grocery totes … but wave the “it” technology product of the month in front of us, and we forget all about business’s need to be transparent and accountable and responsible.

Why should consumers like me have to choose between transformational technology and moral consumption? To iPad, or not to iPad—why is that the question?  Why shouldn’t Apple’s leadership instead have to raise its game, and make their cool products and their cool company more socially accountable? If Apple would replicate the speed-to-market rigor and innovation of their product development in their corporate responsibility agenda, consumers like me could have our cool and self respect.

Apple should keep exceeding my expectations for products, but not at the expense of my expectations for social and environmental responsibility.  They can and must show leadership in sustainability, not just in technology.  That would be Thinking Differently.

  • Heather L. Porter

    Thank you Jeff. I’ve been communicating this point for some time now with many blind apple fanatics. Finally I don’t feel so alone. Come on Apple! You can do better. Better for your bottom line, your stakeholders and your planet.

  • David Connor

    Considering an explosion at Foxconn production facility in China has killed two people today, Apple has some serious questions to answer to that cannot be overlooked by brand / design tinted glasses.

    I find myself constantly torn between appreciating their technical and market achievements against the knowledge they just don’t get sustainability.

    If only they could apply their strengths and demonstrate true leadership with authentic social and environmental motivation. 

    Imagine what iSustainability could do for the world!

  • Sneaker Freak

    Corporate sustainability or green or any of that BS doesn’t matter to me. I choose the best product for my needs and if it happens to be environmentally friendly that’s a bonus. If not, oh well. I buy and use Apple and Nike products. The issue with Nike was of slave labor and child labor not environmental issues. Sorry, I don’t buy Timberland because of their sustainability and I don’t boycott BP because of the Deepwater incident. Or ExxonMobil because of Valdez.

  • Morality V’s Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed – JailBake

    [...] [...]

  • Tim Acheson

    Apple has literally become evil, and I don’t use the word lightly. Yet through vast but subtle advertising and PR operations, the corporation thus far has maintained the perception — particularly among its fan base — as a cool trendy company. It’s time to get real about Apple.

  • Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed | ZDNet

    [...] [...]

  • Hugh Knowles

    Well at least we are beginning to get the tools to really challenge them. The supply chain is complex and hig impact. See the MIT project SourceMap to see

  • Gregory Nicholas


  • Anonymous

    This is a very stupid blog attack on Apple.   Double standard doesn’t apply since you are making sneakers and not technology.   Apple is constantly ripped off.  The companies you should have an issue with, such as FoxConn, work just as much for the rest of the computer industry as they do for Apple.   As soon as the iPhone or iPad comes out, you have slackers like Google and HTC and Dell and MSFT ripping off all the ideas and design that it’s based on.    The factories in China actually profit by helping them do it, releasing details of future Apple products before they can even sell them.   These PC companies do nothing to advance technology, they would rather just wait for Apple to come out with great ideas and them rip off, badly, and sell them to people for $20 cheaper, who could barely tell the difference between the “Mona Lisa” and ‘Dogs playing poker’.

    No comparison to making shoes and clothes.   What a ridiculous premise.

  • Iris Rakovitzky

    Being an Apple fan and a CSR professional this is definitly not easy to read… but it’s time to wake up and smell the …apple…

    I believe discussions like that and buzz on the web can motivate Apple to do better..

  • Treehugger1

    I totally agree. Companies that want to be acknowledged as ‘the leader of the pack’ must accept all of the corporate social responsibilities that go with it. Many that appear to be ‘responsible’ will only do just enough to maintain or grow sales, or stay up with competitors.

  • Veroniquebagge

    As you rightly have pointed out the changes introduced by Nike,Timberland and adidas came following media outcry of the deployable conditions in the supply chain in China. This had a negative effect on their brand and resulted in stronger focus on the ethical conditions in the factories. To have the same push effect from the consumer into the boardroom of Apple, the consumers should start by demonstrating actions behind their wish to have sustainable products. You could simply avoid bying their products- it is the power of choice! And choice is just that, POWER. It is the catalyst for change.

  • Chloe Hamilton

    Interesting perspective Jeff.  But lets look at the sustainability achievements of Timberland and Apple side by side.
    1.  Eliminated PVC from all products
    Apple: yes since 2010
    Timberland: not yet

    2.  Heavily dependent on toxic heavy metals like hexavalent chromium
    Apple: stopped since 2006
    Timberland:  Still dependent on hexavalent chromium

    3. Has completed a full life cycle inventory of GHG emissions for all aspects of its supply chain
    Apple:  Yes since 2008
    Timberland:  Nope

    4.  Provides a free take back and recycling service in more than 90% of the markets it ships in to
    Apple:  Yes
    Timberland: Nope

    5.  Provides one of the honest and candid reports on supplier responsibility in the industry with audits penetrating to all levels of its supply chain
    Apple:  Yes
    Timberland:  No

  • Dieter Mueller

    Nerd Culture revere technology, not humans. Being “Green” is only a trendy side effect, not really a mission statement. Hardly ANY of these Gadgets can be upgraded, Apple offers not even replaceable batteries or SD Slots to expand it’s storage capacity to “last longer”.

  • David Schatsky

    I wonder if Apple gets unfairly tagged as an environmental loser because of its refusal to announce environmental goals. In an ideal world, we get assessed on our performance rather than our plans. Apple’s culture is very secretive, which is at odds with the ethos of openness that corporate social responsibility demands. But its secrecy has been a part of its success. It surely has room for improvement. But is it really performing all that badly? Most of the complaints are focused on how it communicates rather than how it performs.

  • James Farrar

    Jeff  – thank you so much for taking the time to comment on all of this over at ZDNet. I’m sure its most appreciated by everyone following this conversation and certainly by me.;content

    The introduction of board overisght of sustainability at Apple or for that matter Dell and HP or any corporation is a very good idea.

    I’m interested to know if you will be reaching out to discuss these ideas with Steve Jobs or perhaps Al Gore.

    You are clearly very passionate and conflicted about using Apple products – for you its a decision between ‘morality v technology’. At what point do you think you will reach a point where you might choose, presumably morality, and feel you nor Timberland can no longer buy Apple?
    Thanks Again for stopping by ZDNet. James

  • Update – Swartz to Jobs: let Timberland help Apple on sustainability | ZDNet

    [...] [...]

  • Betsy Blaisdell

    Hi Chloe,

    It was never our intention to suggest that Timberland didn’t have work to do on sustainability issues, rather to suggest there might be room for the leader in technology to become the leader in sustainability as well.  I wanted to take a minute to clarify some of the Timberland points you mention:

    - It’s true that we haven’t been able to eliminate all PVC from our products.  As of last year 86% of our footwear production was PVC-free and by the end of this year we intend to have eliminated it entirely. 

    - We don’t use any hexavalant chrome.  In fact our Restricted Substances Program prohibits the use of hexavalent chrome in our products.  There are different forms of chrome, and you may be thinking of Chrome 3, or trivalent chrome, which is common in the tanning process, and not a restricted substance.  In order to ensure that hexavalent chromium is not used or present in the leather we purchase, we source our leathers from tanneries that have been rated Silver in a third party environmental audit which takes into account, among other things, chemical management (including chromium), and we test our leathers for compliance with our Restricted Substances Program. 

    - We measure cradle (emissions embedded in all our materials) to gate (finished product factory) for all our footwear. We also measure the emissions produced by our transportation and our corporate facilities and air travel. Our quarterly data and comprehensive climate strategy can be found here

    -    We do have take-back programs in our US stores (soon to be extended overseas) for all brands and types of shoes, and have our own recyclable shoe as well.
    - I guess “honest and candid” are subjective, but we think we do a pretty good job here.  Our CSR reports cover all factory assessments and we report results quarterly.  We do regular assessments, participate in several multi-brand/ multi-stakeholder working groups to ensure we are following international standards and sharing best practices, and contribute to standards development.  We also disclose our supplier list quarterly. Access to these reports and more information on all these initiatives can be found here: 

    Betsy Blaisdell, Sr. Manager Environmental Stewardship

  • Anonymous

    How about Morality v Outdoor Clothing? I recently brought a breach of your own CSR standards regarding worker rights to the attention of your company in Asia Pacific. In response, a nameless bureaucrat (“Sincerely, The Timberland Company (Asia Pacific) Pte. Ltd”) demonstrated a preference for a defensive justification of poor practice rather than a proactive desire to actually walk the talk you and your company so eloquently espouse in your corporate literature and on this blog. 

    I’ve heard it said that a critic is like a legless man that teaches running. 

    Keep up your critiques.

  • Zach T

    I wouldn’t give Apple too much credit for stopping the use of toxic heavy metals.  That was more the RoHS directive and an obligation rather than a choice of theirs to change their ways.  It’s almost impossible to produce any electronics with lead, hex chrom, etc. and still sell on the global market.  I’m sure if Apple (and other electronics producers, for that matter) had their way, they would’ve kept the lead in many components.

  • Jeff Swartz

    Hey Mike–if you want to engage, engage.  If you have a concern about workers rights, write to me–not to customer service.  I will make sure that your concern gets vetted.  And cut the jabs at people with physical challenges.  Cheap.  I know heroes without limbs who teach profound things.

  • Jeffrey D. Ballinger

    You’re telling Mike to engage on worker rights?  What about me?  I went back and forth with your CSR staff for MONTHS – they finally promised a “roundtable” (not MY idea – I wanted a DEBATE), but reneged on that.

  • Zofran dosage

    My only concern is will Apple ditch iWeb altogether?

blog comments powered by Disqus