China's IT Poisons

In early April, 34 Chinese environmental NGOs wrote letters to 29 IT companies regarding members of their supply chains violating Chinese environmental laws and regulations. The list included suppliers for global brands like Apple, IBM, Intel, Sony and Lenovo.

Ten days of mostly silence on the part of these companies led to a press conference that attracted widespread media attention and finally some responses. According to an insider source, some companies claimed that these violations took place before they became buyers; others made vague promises of investigations and redress. Hundreds of letters and phone calls are being exchanged between the parties and much work is still needed to be done.

Some of these suppliers committed a number of gross violations, including using secret pipes to discharge untreated wastewater directly into the waterways. Several companies most frequently appearing as key suppliers are subsidiaries of Kingboard Chemical Holdings, which was already infamously denounced in a Green Peace report on water pollution in the Pearl River Delta. Another company Huaqiang Battery Ltd, is located near a village where more than a hundred children was most recently found to be poisoned by excessive lead. The company is also a supplier for a Dongguan company, South Capital Inc. that just went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange a month before and was also ironically honored with the "Outstanding Supplier Award".

China's intricate and convoluted web of IT supply chains makes monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations daunting even for local governments. Many companies had been repeatedly fined and ordered to clean up by their respective provincial governments. Some simply close down and set up new shops under new names or move to another province. The sheer scale of China's export processing industries is simply beyond the capacity of China underfunded and rigid environmental protection bureaucracy. China's growing environmental movement is well positioned to fill the monitoring and advocacy vacuum.

Backed by official government data and using media savvies, these 34 NGOs are forcing brand-conscious global IT corporations to face up to the discrepancy between their glorified "Supplier Code of Conduct" and actual implementation on the ground. We as consumers of many of these global brands must play our part in supporting these efforts. It will only lead to greener and safer products and environment for all of us.