Ideas like corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the "triple bottom line" (people, planet, profit) have been around a long time. As they move from the fringes to the mainstream, most companies have learned at least to talk the talk.
But in an era of globalization, where some corporations have hundreds or thousands of factories scattered across the globe, how possible is it to manage a supply chain that complies with labour and environmental standards -- in other words, to walk the walk?
That question is beginning to haunt the information technology industry as local NGOs use open government information laws to document environmental and labour abuses in the supply chain in China -- culminating most recently with the publication of report about U.S. consumer-electronics giant Apple, The Other Side of Apple II -- Pollution Spreads through Apple's Supply Chain.
Perhaps the prime example from the past of a company shamed into CSR submission is U.S.-based sportswear company Nike. In the 1990s, the popular supplier became infamous for its exploitative manufacturing practices, including the use of sweatshops and child labor. Local watchdog groups, mostly in Asia, played a key role in taking the message to the media, spurring boycotts by groups like United Students Against Sweatshops.
That furor has faded from the headlines, thanks in part to the company's efforts to get its supply chain under control, including disclosing the names and locations of its factories. Perhaps it's also thanks to a short public attention span: Nike still struggles to ensure that its factories live up to its code of conduct and sometimes it falls short -- but that no longer seems to hurt its increasing sales and record-high profits.
But either way, CSR experts say the apparel industry is now ahead of the IT industry in effective supply chain management; and environmental activists in China -- who are beginning to find their voices as a lobby -- hope to focus on the push for accountability in the IT sector.
Many developing countries host IT production, but China is a global center. "It is shocking," said Ma Jun, director of Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), the Beijing-based nonprofit organization at the center of the Apple story, referring to the wastewater, hazardous waste and solid waste he has witnessed at IT plants.
Some of the damage will take decades and vast resources to repair, he said. Information technology is not the virtual industry that people often envision, Ma said. "It's an actual industry with huge amounts of discharged pollution, including toxics and heavy metals."
Supply Chains and CSR
Recognizing the potential risks to their reputations, most global IT corporations have now joined the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), an industry group that works to help global electronics supply chains improve working and environmental conditions.
"We have a code of conduct that our members need to adopt," said Wendy Dittmer, director of communications for the group. That code reads like everything people would want to hear about their electronics manufacturers: It addresses labour, health and safety and the environment in addition to business ethics and ensuring code compliance.
Next page: Inside the EICC's Code of Conduct