It's time for Apple, and the rest of us, to speak up

Apple needs to open up, and customers must demand that it does so.

I started this post on my iPad. As much as I would like to, I can't get the recent New York Times article, "In China, human costs are built into the iPad", out of my mind. Part of a series on manufacturing policies and processes in the technology world, the story details grim working conditions, stress, and fatal accidents at the Chinese plants that make our cool gadgets.

This sentence, "Apple was provided with extensive summaries of this article, but the company declined to comment," was no surprise. The "no comment' policy is officially getting old.

I was encouraged to see this report of an email from CEO Tim Cook to employees. "As a company and as individuals, we are defined by our values. Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple's values today, and I'd like to address this with you directly," he said. "We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us."

Cook's letter says that Apple this month opened its "supply chain for independent evaluations by the Fair Labor Association".

I hope these moves signal a new future for Apple's communications strategy, even if they are not ostensibly intended for an external audience. Apple, with its resources and great thinking, should be leading in corporate responsibility, not trailing behind. Issues this complicated and sensitive demand constant engagement, partnerships, and monitoring. The exacting standards the company brings to its products must be brought to bear on this most critical issue.

The public wouldn't tolerate "no comment" on safety issues from a mining company, or squeezing margins at the expense of employees from a discount retailer. We shouldn't accept it from companies we love, but should hold them to a higher standard. It's incumbent on us, as Apple customers, to push the company to not only believe it is doing right, but to demonstrate it to all its stakeholders.

Apple is simply not giving its customers the tools to speak for its values, and its actions. A supplier responsibility report is good, but it's not enough. Consumers can speak passionately about the company's vision, but not about its behavior.

That probably doesn't matter so much right now, with breathtaking earnings getting far more play than the story of workers in another world. But one day there may come a time when a big, negative story overtakes the story of the next life-changing gadget. Who will speak up for Apple then?

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