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Tuesday, February 14, 2012, 07:09 am PT (10:09 am ET)

'Slacktivism' groups claim credit for Apple supplier audits after the fact

Two organizations that host online petition drives are claiming credit for Apple's partnership with the Fair Labor Association to monitor worker conditions in overseas suppliers' factories, over a month after the company originally announced its plans.

The two websites, Change.org and SumOfUs.org, issued press releases this morning suggesting that petitions they hosted were a motivating force behind Apple's supplier investigation, despite the fact that both publicity efforts occurred after Apple outlined its latest efforts in policing its supplier accountability policy.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the executive director of SumOfUs.org, stated in a press release that additional details Apple had just released about its partnership with the FLA "came just a few days after consumer advocacy groups," including her own and Change.org, collectively "delivered over a quarter of a million petition signatures calling on Apple to address abysmal working conditions in its supply chain in time to produce an ethical iPhone 5."

Participants signing the petitions didn't actually do anything apart from supplying one of the two websites with their name and contact information, a growing movement known as "slacktivism," which is defined as participating in "'feel-good' measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction."

While claiming credit for exerting "pressure" that prompted Apple to work with the FLA, Stinebrickner-Kauffman in the same press release paragraph chided Apple's actions as meaningless and disingenuous, writing that "instead of actually solving the problem, they’re trying to whitewash it" by "hiring a business-funded group with a long track record of serving as a corporate mouthpiece." As a "business" "funding" the FLA, Apple is currently unique among its technology manufacturing peers, none of whom were mentioned by either Change.org or SumOfUs.org.

Empowering social change after the fact

A parallel press release issued by the same Meltwater Press publicity firm credited a petition by Change.org for Apple's efforts, with the blurb "viral Change.org campaign prompts Apple to ask the Fair Labor Association to investigate labor conditions in Chinese factories and publish reports."

The release quoted Mark Shields, who originated the Change.org petition drive, as saying "as an Apple consumer, I'm relieved to hear that Tim Cook is taking this seriously and breaking ground in the industry with Fair Labor Association auditing. But Apple still needs to use some of their trademark creativity and problem solving to create a worker protection plan for new products — especially the upcoming iPad3 — so that they're proactively taking care of their workers."

Amanda Kloer, the director of organizing for Change.org, wrote in the same press release that her site "is all about empowering people like Mark to win campaigns for social change, and it's been incredible to see his campaign's growth and Apple's announcement today."

Retroactive activism

Apple's chief executive Tim Cook actually announced plans to work with the FLA a month ago, as part of the annual release of the company's Supplier Responsibility Progress Report.

Apple began reporting the results of its audits of overseas suppliers in 2007, and has issued candid, public annual reports of its findings and what steps it has taken to correct the problems ever since.

A variety of media sources and publicity or fundraising organizations have jumped on the reports to accuse Apple of, for example, using underage labor or allowing the unsafe use of toxic chemicals, after the company reported discovering through hundreds of audits conducted each year that several of its contractors had failed to meet its standards and after Apple had taken action to stop the activities or terminate its relationship with the offending contractors.

Publicity at any cost

Prior to Apple's Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports, the company had for several years reported its pioneering efforts to reduce toxics and ewaste internationally, efforts that were similarly turned around by critics to draw attention to their organizations.

In 2005 and 2006, a series of campaigns waged by Greenpeace and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition began using the company's rapidly growing visibility to kickstart their fundraising drives, with accusations that falsely suggested Apple was shipping sending toxic trash to third world countries and was involved in the "use of prison work programs where super-exploited, under-protected captive workers are subject to toxic exposure."

Greenpeace, in its "greener guide to electronics" praised HP for publishing toxics reduction goals that the company subsequently failed to meet, while ranking Apple as "partially bad" for failing to trumpet its goals publicly, despite having actually taken more effective action.