Steve Jobs' Legacy and CSR

Tributes are pouring in for the late Steve Jobs: cover stories in Time, Newsweek, and The Economist, accolades for his remaking of multiple industries (computers, phones, music, movies), and paeans for his contributions to product design, marketing, and innovation. 

Apple, the company he founded and served twice as CEO, has joined the ranks of the richest in the world.  And after Jobs' passing, brand fans around the world lit honorific candles, texted and tweeted their thanks, and hailed him as the Thomas Edison of our times.  

What is curious is that the CSR press and opinion leaders have not, to this point, joined in calling for Jobs' beatification.  On a recent visit to China, one of us (Googins) got a glimpse into some of what’s behind their silence. 

A controversial report, The Other Side of Apple, authored by Ma Jun, director of the nongovernmental Institute of Public & Environment Affairs in Beijing, excoriates Apple for environmental and human right’s abuses in its Asian supply chain.  Compounding these misdeeds is what Ma Jun calls a “culture of secrecy” that pervades Apple and seals it off from those who want to assess and verify its environmental and social impact. 

The Other Side of Apple

Spending some time with Ma Jun and his colleagues in Beijing and reviewing their long list of findings reveals a sordid “other side” to Apple.  The 70 page, well-documented report contends that behind Apple’s stylish products and public panache is a legacy of “pollution and poison.” 

The charges are disturbing:  waves of suicides among workers at one plant and in several others employees sickened and suffering physically and emotional from exposure to toxic chemicals.  This side of Apple, the report explains “is hidden deep within the company’s secretive supply chain out of view of the public.” 

Meanwhile, Steve Dowling a spokesman for Apple was recently quoted in the New York Times that Apple was aggressively monitoring its supply chain with regular factory audits and was “committed to driving the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply chain.” 

We are but interested observers in this instance, and cannot verify the accuracy of Ma Jun’s multiple charges or the effectiveness of Apple’s audits and actions. However, stepping back from the particulars, what is indisputable are Apple’s well-known penchant for secrecy and its historic lack of transparency when it comes to CSR.

Responding to Critics

This is hardly the first time that a great company has been found to be deficient in its environmental and social performance. 

Nike (taken to task over treatment of workers in its Asian supply chain), Shell (over environmental pollution and social justice issues), various lumber companies (over the use of old growth timber), and General Electric (for dumping PCB’s into the Hudson River) have all been thrust harshly into the ethical spotlight.  These firms, and many others, responded to the charges in a typical fashion. 

Think of it in terms of climbing up a “ladder of responsibility”:

1. Non-responsive—See nothing, say nothing, and hopes it all goes away. This is the first rung on the ladder (akin to denial) but most companies have learned that this response usually worsens the situation and activates critics.

2. Defensive—Not our problem or responsibility, our suppliers are to blame.  When Time put a Nike contract worker on its cover, showing her limb sawed-off by an industrial sewing machine, the company learned that this excuse simply wouldn’t “do it” for customers.   

3. Reactive—Fix the problem, but ignore the causes.  This version of whack-a mole has companies react as problems arise but not deal with underlying factors.  While this can lessen the heat, it doesn’t gain firms plaudits from critics or win over disappointed customers.  Plus, new problems soon emerge.

4. Proactive—Embrace a systemic approach to CSR.  This signals that a company is committed to putting its values into not only what it makes but how it makes it.  Here firms move into two-way communication with stakeholders, invest in continuously improving their CSR profile, and become much more transparent about their doings and dealings.

It would seem that Apple has not yet learned the lesson from Nike and others that full disclosure and open engagement with critics are key requirements of true corporate citizenship.  Of course this kind of openness can seem risky in a company like Apple where unique designs and technological advances are a source of competitive advantage. 

No one is asking Apple to reveal its “trade secrets.”  But why not, like Nike or Levi Strauss & Co., make public the companies in your supply chain?  And why not be more transparent about how you are doing in achieving the “highest standards of social responsibility” in your supply chain?

Leaders and Legacies

Does CSR really matter in a company like Apple?  The words are there, but it is not easy to judge performance without full disclosure and dialogue.  The case at hand raises some interesting questions about corporate icons and CSR.  For example:

1. Does a company with “star power” like Apple also have to be a star when it comes to CSR?  Is it ok to be great in design and marketing, but simply average in CSR?

2. Similarly, can firms truly claim have a “culture of innovation” when they lag behind their industry with CSR?  Do innovative employees care?

3. Finally, when customers’ love your products and brand are they less interested or judgmental about your CSR performance?  Will customers give companies a “pass” on CSR failings so long as their expectations are exceeded in other respects?  How about the mainstream media?

On these points, Nike made a fast turnaround on CSR after its comeuppance and is now a bona fide leader in the footwear and apparel industry.  GE turned itself around when a new CEO, Jeff Immelt, took the helm, developed a progressive and transparent compliance program, and launched its ecomagination campaign. 

What’s ahead for Apple?  It will be left to Jobs' successor to lead the company forward on CSR…or not.

Bradley K. Googins is executive director emeritus of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. He is also a Professor in Organizational Studies at the Boston College's Carroll School of Management. Together with Philip Mirvis, Googins covers broad areas of CSR, Sustainability, and Business and Society relations on BCLCblog. Philip Mirvis is an organizational psychologist and senior research fellow at the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. His studies and private practice concerns large-scale organizational change, the character of the workforce and workplace, and business leadership in society.