Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Works to Promote Safer Electronics

Every year the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to six extraordinary grassroots environmental heroes from around the globe – recognizing one person from each of the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.  While all of this year’s prize recipients have a compelling and critical issue that they are focusing on (and I encourage you to learn more about ALL of them), Asia-winner Ma Jun with the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in China is of particular interest to those working on safer electronics, as his efforts are having a profound impact on the global electronics industry, which has much of its production centered in the region.

China has been known for prioritizing economic development above all and it is widely acknowledged that pollution around the country is now widespread and severe.  According to the World Bank, China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most air polluted cities. As a journalist, Ma Jun traveled throughout China and had the opportunity to see the extent of environmental pollution and the impact that it has on the air, water, land, and people. Because China has a credibility gap, wherein information reported by the government is not trusted, Ma Jun set up IPE as an independent, third-party organization to audit and verify the data provided by the Chinese government. Through IPE, he has exposed over 90,000 air and water violations by local and multinational companies operating in China and is encouraging Chinese consumers to use their buying power to influence corporate sourcing and increase supply chain oversight.

In 2010, IPE and a coalition of public interest groups released a report exposing the IT industry’s contribution to heavy metal pollution in China. They found that the IT industry “has become a laggard in using information disclosure to promote environmental protection.” IPE’s aim is to use disclosure of environmental information as a way to promote public participation in environmental protection, and thereby place public pressure on companies to operate more responsibly. They have since released a series of reports and have successfully engaged 29 major IT brands, including Hewlett Packard, Alcatel-Lucent, Samsung, Sharp, and Toshiba, in dialogue around cleaning up their practices. To date, more than 500 companies from a variety of sectors have agreed to disclose to the public their plan and efforts to clean up their facilities.

But one company was a hold out. Apple, one of 29 IT companies named for its heavy metal pollution in China, refused to talk to IPE. Ma Jun led a “Poison Apple” campaign to protest Apple’s lack of supply chain oversight, and after a year and half of silence, in September 2011 Apple approached Chinese environmental groups and began to work to clean up their practices. Just last month, Apple agreed to conduct a joint environmental audit with IPE of one of their supplier factories in China. This new breakthrough monitoring agreement is significant because of Apple’s size, importance and potential to act as a leader to inspire other companies to do the same.

For more information about Ma Jun and IPE’s work, please check out the following links: