I have never understood the buzz about Apple. Yes, it is a creative brand that turns out sleek products, but they are expensive and not necessarily innovative. Co-founder Steve Jobs, while a perfectionist and master of marketing, was, as his biography makes plain, often an unpleasant person. Especially troubling, though, the company has a mediocre record when it comes to pollution and caring for the people who make its gadgets.
None of this is apparent from Apple's sales and earnings. The company last month announced record profits, which surged 118per cent year-on-year. They were driven by massive quarterly demand for the iPhone 4S and iPad II, both of which sold several million more units than had been predicted.
Apple has a cult following that has grown to the point of fanaticism. I expect hate mail for merely suggesting that all is not as it should be with the firm. But I am no hater, having either used or owned a smattering of its products, starting with an Apple II computer in 1980 and most recently being mesmerised - to the verge of purchase - by the user friendliness of the iPad. Being cool or accessible to the visually impaired is not a reason to ignore corporate social responsibility, though.
Corporate social responsibility is not well understood. Some firms believe that it is about doing work for charity, while others think that sending off a few philanthropic cheques is the beginning and end. Neither justifiably earn the label. A company can only claim to be socially responsible if its operations have a positive impact on society and cause no environmental harm.
Apple, like a number of other high-tech firms and industries, has struggled with this concept in a globalised world. It has mastered global manufacturing by moving its production base out of the US to China, creating supply chains that can respond to orders so quickly that devices can be turned out almost as fast as they are conceived. That has meant huge profit margins for Apple, but small ones for contractors. In a country with poor enforcement of laws and skyrocketing demand, the result is often severe labour abuses, workplace safety problems and contamination of the environment.
Labour activists and environmentalists have for years been calling on Apple to meet expectations. In keeping with the mystique surrounding its products, its efforts have been secretive. But on January 13, under Jobs' replacement as chief executive, Tim Cook, it stepped into the media glare, releasing for the first time a list of its 156 major suppliers in its annual supplier responsibility report. The report on its website also said that 229 audits had been conducted last year, 80per cent more than in 2010.
Why this did not happen under Jobs can only be guessed at. Certainly, the lack of transparency should have lifted early last year when a spate of suicides at the Shenzhen factory of Foxconn, the Taiwanese firm where iPhones and iPads are assembled, came to light.
Whatever the spur, though, Apple can no longer shy away from doing what is right. Cook has set the right tone and now his company has to be as groundbreaking with corporate and social responsibility as it has been with its products.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post