Climate

What Apple’s Solar Plans In China Could Mean For Tech Laborers

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

A customer tries out new Apple iPhone 6S at an Apple store in Chicago.

Just weeks after selling out its best-selling iPhone 6s, Apple announced plans to clean up its supply chain through two clean energy programs aimed at reducing carbon emissions in its Chinese manufacturing plants — a move that could start a ripple effect in how the industry sources materials and the labor it uses to build the devices everyone craves.

The iPhone is Apple’s best-selling product, with the latest iteration — the iPhone 6s — selling 13 million units in the first three days it was on sale. A large chunk of those units were sold — and made — in China.

China’s smog pollution is well documented, spurring the country to triple its solar capacity by 2017. Apple likely has had a hand in that through its China-based suppliers, most notably Foxconn, which churns out millions of iPhones each year to meet demand.

But the tech giant is hoping to offset its energy use by building more than 200 megawatts worth of solar grids throughout China, with the goal of producing enough energy to fuel more than a quarter-million homes a year, according to an Apple news release.

Apple isn’t shouldering all of the greening responsibilities, however, and is tasking chief supplier Foxconn with building 400 megawatts of solar grids in China’s Henan Province by 2018. Foxconn has also agreed to zero out the carbon footprint created by its Zhengzhou factory, generating the same amount of clean energy it consumes.

“Being responsible, protecting air and water, and driving clean energy are at the heart of Apple’s commitment to China,” Lisa Jackson, vice president of Apple’s environment and social policy team said in a statement. “These projects go beyond Apple’s operations in China to help our suppliers adopt clean renewable energy.”

The program has been lauded as an essential first step in corporate responsibility, but climate advocates note that follow-through will be essential to how effective the policies will be not just for climate change, but other issues including labor and sourcing materials.

“It’s a good down payment,” said Gary Cook, senior tech industry analyst for Greenpeace USA. “Transparency is critical in all of this. Companies have to report more on their supply chain and energy sourcing — consistent, better reporting so we can measure progress. We don’t know the context of which the [energy] reduction is being made — how much energy Apple uses now compared to how much they reduce,” through the clean energy initiatives.

To make a lasting impact, he said, companies such as Amazon, Dell and Microsoft are all going to have to follow suit: “It’s going to take multiple companies…working together to [eventually] change the laws,” governing everything from carbon emissions to conflict minerals.

Additionally, consumers are becoming more cognizant of the conditions under which goods are made — worker safety and health, chemical management — and how production affects the environment and workers.

“Those companies who don’t go green will likely suffer down the line,” Cook said. “It’s in their interest to be vigilant and demanding,” of their suppliers and subcontractors hired through outsourcing, which can sometimes lead to diminished quality standards.

Apple, has led many efforts to clean up its supply chain, including eliminating the use of conflict minerals and conserving energy. But the world’s top tech company also previously fended off criticism surrounding labor conditions primarily at Foxconn. Worker safety and conditions is a storied problem with tech companies, with instances of suicides from work pressures and health risks due to chemical exposure.

The good news is that there seems to be some correlation between green companies and better working environments. A 2012 University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) study found that employees at companies with environmentally friendly practices reported better workplace satisfaction and productivity.

But Kevin Slaten, the program coordinator for China Labor Watch, an investigative workers’ advocacy group said tech companies’ efforts to go green or otherwise appeal to consumers’ collective conscience won’t automatically manifest into better working conditions unless its an expressed goal.

“I don’t know if it necessarily translates into benefits for workers,” Slaten said. “As a labor organization, there’s no input from the bottom here, this [clean energy initiative] is management driven…So whether the policy is good for the bottom line is going to be the driving factor.”

China Labor Watch released a report Oct. 22, the same day Apple announced its solar programs in China, detailing the working conditions of factories Apple contracted with to manufacture the newly minted iPhone 6 — such as workers make $1.85 hourly wage before overtime, work 12-hour shifts, and one-third the amount of safety training required by Chinese law.

The constant influx of tech products, with devices constantly being updated or created, creates “tremendous pressure to work as fast as possible,” Slaten said. “You’re working at 30 percent capacity and [the company] needs 80 percent capacity next month,” and factory managers have to hire quickly, which can lead to lapses in training and workplace conditions.

“If anything, these greening policies are net positives in the long term,” Slaten said. “But when it comes to labor, there isn’t much you can do if you want to have fair and ethical conditions besides raise wages, spend money on training, safety, design.”