Technology's dented halo

Corporate citizenship may one day be as important to technology brands as innovation.

Apple announced yesterday that the Fair Labor Association had begun inspecting its manufacturing facilities, including Foxconn factories in China. Apple and other companies had been the subject of a searing New York Times series on global labor conditions in the technology sector.

In a story in today's Times, critics question the Fair Labor Association's independence. “[It] is largely a fig leaf,” said Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change, a labor rights group. “There's all this rhetoric from corporate social responsibility people and the big companies that they want to improve labor standards, but all the pressure seems to be going the other direction — they're trying to force prices down.”

Other consumer products goods companies are accustomed to this degree of skepticism. Some may wonder what's taken so long for tech to find itself in the global labor crosshairs. As Burson-Marsteller's 2012 Global Corporate Reputation Index revealed, technology companies have been getting a "pass on citizenship, due to a halo of strong innovation".

"Of all the industries, technology companies have the strongest average reputation," reads the report. "However, the bulk of their reputation stems from attributes like "innovative" and "visionary", suggesting a performance glow is driving the image of the industry. As a result, many technology companies are given the benefit of the doubt in terms of their citizenship efforts..."

This dynamic cannot be sustained. "Technology is powering through on innovation but clearly the citizenship gap is growing and could catch up to the industry," said Mark Penn, Burson's CEO.  Penn says that technology may have been given a pass over time because of how much individuals rely on it to drive so many aspects of their lives.

But as the Index points out, positive, convincing efforts towards global citizenship may be a strong differentiator for technology companies over time. Some are already doing a lot, others will need to eventually. By viewing this as a market opportunity, rather than just a cost of doing business, the industry's orientation to innovation could be put to work for the greater good of the global workforce.

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