Report: Apple’s Supply Chain Not So Green After All

Just when Apple (s AAPL) was starting to draw praise from environmental groups in the U.S., a new report focused on its supply chain is pointing more fingers. A group of Chinese nongovernmental agencies issued a report that accuses Apple and other IT companies of working with suppliers that have used chemicals that have made their workers sick. In a ranking of 29 tech companies on the environmental aspects of their supply chains, Apple came in dead last.

Specifically, the report points to Apple’s connection to a company called Wintek, which the group says is a major supplier of Apple iPhone touch screens. The report says Wintek introduced a chemical solvent called N-Hexane that is used for cleaning glass in 2008, and this solvent has made workers at its plant sick. In the video clip the group made about the report, a Wintek executive says “our main client is Apple.”

Apple maintains it makes all its suppliers sign a “code of conduct” contract, and that its suppliers are audited and monitored to make sure they adhere to the contract. In response to the NGO report, Apple is telling the media (like this PC World report) it “is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply base.” Apple issues annual Supplier Responsibility Progress reports, and in its most recent report it says:

The companies we do business with must provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.

The sticking point it seems for the NGO groups is that Apple didn’t want to provide the groups information about its suppliers. The Wall Street Journal (s nws) quotes the deputy director of one of the NGO groups, Wang Jingjing of the IPE, who says out of 29 tech companies “Apple is the only one company that did not respond to our investigation requests. And Apple is the only company that chose to always avoid us.”

Apple is famous for maintaining control over all aspects of its products, and has seemed to balk at answering to yet another group of environmentalists. Apple drew criticism from Greenpeace a couple of years ago for not disclosing its carbon footprint. But then in late 2009, the company released its carbon footprint and a new carbon accounting system that accounted for the projected carbon footprint of its products in the market (an unusual move for a gadget maker). It was another indicator that Apple does things Apple’s way.

While Apple might have rejected answering to this group of environmentalists, public attention has seemed to work on Apple in the past. Apple CEO Steve Jobs noted that Greenpeace’s criticism of Apple was one of the motivations behind Apple unveiling its carbon footprint and Job’s pledge to make “a greener Apple.” Apple has since moved up in the ranks of Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Gadgets report.

This isn’t the first time that Apple suppliers in China have come under scrutiny. Last summer Apple supplier Foxconn was in the news for a spate of worker suicides.

As our Apple Blog noted on Friday, the issuing of the report was clearly timed to be released in a week of record earnings for Apple. In addition, support for political reform of worker conditions has been weak in China, and “the collective might of politically and economically influential multinationals like Apple and HP — pushed into action by bad PR — seems too good an opportunity to miss.”

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