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Panorama gets under the skin of Apple’s ethical claims

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The media just won’t leave Apple alone – I almost feel sorry for them. I know I shouldn’t feel sorry for the global megabrand, but I almost do: Apple’s getting the Panorama treatment.

It’s working hard, so it says, to become a more ethical company, but those scandals and the resultant spikes in public scrutiny keep rolling in. And rolling on, Panorama being the latest in a long list. And we at Friends of the Earth have played a hefty part in that.

In 2012 Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in partnership with Indonesian sister group Walhi and Dutch sister group Milieu Defensi, launched the Make It Better campaign. This took a detailed look at the horrors of unregulated tin mining on and around the Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung.

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of mined tin, 90% of which comes from Bangka-Belitung province, off the South East of coast of Sumatra. Our reports and films documented the disastrous impact tin mining is having on the environment there, destroying forests and farmland and suffocating coral reefs where, as is increasingly happening, the mining takes place off shore. The impacts on people are no less terrible, with deaths and injuries happening on a weekly basis.

We showed that tin from the islands was almost certainly used in Apple and Samsung’s products, and called on them to admit it or prove otherwise. Samsung owned up pretty much straight away, to its credit, but Apple dragged its heels for over a year, even whilst other companies tripped over themselves to own up too. Finally Apple did come clean in its 2014 Supplier Responsibility Report. Could have saved itself a lot of bother if it had just done what the others did and ‘fessed up much sooner.

I’ve not seen the Panorama report but their researcher tells me they’ve unearthed some more embarrassments for Apple. I’ll save our lawyers a headache by leaving off making any comment on their claims, but recommend you watch the programme to find out for yourself. Should be interesting.

Credit where it’s due, Apple has played a leading role in an industry group that’s been working with Dutch quango the Sustainable Trade Initiative to see if it’s possible to mine tin more sustainably. It’s also won praise for improving the transparency of its supply chains and working to weed out bad practice.

But maybe I’m feeling too sorry for Apple. It’s a company, after all. And companies tend to be pretty much hardwired to prioritise profits over everything else. And this is why, whilst we should encourage companies to be better global citizens and praise them for good stuff, we need rules, we need regulation. We need government action to ensure products are designed to be reused, recycled, and built to last. And we need legislation to help companies face up to the impacts of their operations and the implications of their throw-away business models by publishing those impacts and what they plan to do to address them.

This past week has seen just such government action battered by backward-looking business. Apple is trying to show the world it’s forward looking, that it cares about people and planet, that it’s not one of those dinosaurs. I’m fascinated to see Panorama’s take on that. Personally, I think Apple has improved, but has a long way to go, not least in showing its support for rules and regulations that are key not just to making a better world for all of us, but also proving you’re the kind of company that cares about such things.

I know it’s soppy of me, but I’d really like Apple if it were to prove that that’s the kind of company it’s going to be.

Post written by Julian Kirby, 17th December 2014.

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