- Mistreating its workers in China.
- Knowing it and even documenting it.
- Ignoring it, in favor of maintaining its supply chain.
Here's the most damning quote in the article from a former Apple executive: "We’re trying really hard to make things better, but most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from."
Apple is in danger of becoming Nike or Walmart: Another large company that (critics say) makes billions on the backs of overseas workers. But Apple can't afford that to happen ... not if it wants to survive, much less thrive, in the coming years.
Apple has positioned itself as a cut above brands like Nike or Walmart or Union Carbide. Steve jobs set the mission: 'Make a dent in the universe.'
This is the brand that launched itself internationally with the 1984 commercial on the Super Bowl. It's supposed to be the young lady throwing the hammer into Big Brother's face, not one more soulless corporation that profits by abusing its frontline workers -- even if they are in China.
Apple is an idealistic brand. Like Whole Foods. Like the old Ben & Jerry's. Like Virgin.
When Apple talked about "think different," it compared itself through its advertising to Einstein, Martin Luther King and John Lennon. There is a much, much higher standard at play that Apple cannot afford to abandon -- especially now that Steve Jobs has passed into secular sainthood.
Folks who buy Macs and iPhones and iPads are a relatively small part of the overall electronics market. They tend to lean to the left politically. If they begin to think that, "Hell, I might as well buy an Android because there's nothing special about owning an iPhone," then Apple is in deep, deep trouble.
To this market, "special" means more than "cool" and "cutting-edge"; it means "visionary." It also means "humanist."
Crisis breeds opportunity. In this case, the opportunity belongs to Apple's relatively new CEO, Tim Cook. By taking on this issue, by applying his expertise in operations in the full spirit of the Apple brand, Cook has a rare and fleeting chance to step out of Jobs' very long shadow and establish his own legacy.
He should begin that process by saying something like this:
"We've failed to live up to our own standard; we are going to do better, and we're going to be transparent to our customers as we get better. We are going to become accountable on this issue.
"We will actively look for new partners that can fill our supply chain while also treating workers well. If we can do that overseas, fine. If we can do that here in the U.S., or at least in North America, then that is what we will do.
"We're not just about clean design and innovative ideas. We're Apple. When Steve Jobs talked about 'making a dent in the universe,' he meant 'to improve the world," and not just 'churn out high profits and maintain the share price.'"
Having done that, Cook should then make it his mission to rewrite the rules for the treatment of overseas workers just as Jobs rewrote the rules for consumer electronics.
That would be quite a legacy.