HONG KONG -- Apple has told a prominent Chinese environmental activist that it will soon launch independent environmental audits of at least two suppliers' factories in China, the activist said.
The audits come as Apple faces mounting criticism about toxic pollution and factory injuries at overseas suppliers' factories. The environmental reviews would be separate from an independent probe of working conditions at the China factories of Apple suppliers, including Foxconn Technology, that began last week.
Ma Jun, founder of The Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs, told USA TODAY Monday in a phone interview that Apple agreed to the independent audits in late January in response to two reports that IPE and other environmental groups released last year documenting hazardous waste leaks and the use of toxic chemicals at suspected Apple suppliers.
The audit, which could begin in March, will start with two suppliers, but might expand to others, said Ma, one of China's leading environmental activists.
The audits will focus on environmental issues, including whether Apple suppliers are discharging toxic waste into the water supply and soil. Ma's group in Beijing and other members of the Green Choice Alliance, a coalition of 41 Chinese organizations, will participate in the investigations, to be conducted by a professional auditor.
Apple has long conducted internal audits of suppliers. But an independent review is necessary to "make sure that the audit is done in a transparent way," said Ma, whose group has met and had calls with Apple half a dozen times since mid-September.
Apple spokeswoman Carolyn Wu declined comment. Apple says on its website that it insists that suppliers "provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes."
The environmental audit reports, when released, will disclose the names of the suppliers examined, according to Ma. Of the more than dozen suspected Apple suppliers that IPE named in its reports last year, Apple has confirmed it works with at least three: Meiko Electronics, Unimicron Corp. and Ibiden Electronics.
Apple's decision to launch independent audits at its overseas suppliers is a move in the right direction for Chinese workers who tend to face harsh working conditions and low pay, according to Gary Liu, deputy director of the China Europe International Business School's Lujiazui International Finance Research Center.
"Apple now realizes that its brand name will suffer if it continues to be blind to the misbehaviors" of suppliers, said Liu.
The development could increase pressure for improvements at other Chinese suppliers. Apple joins Adidas, Nike, Patagonia and others that have supported such monitoring to improve labor conditions in contract plants.
Apple's size gives it a leadership role among U.S. companies: "If Apple doesn't change, then it could serve as a very bad model for other companies," said Ma.