Investigation by coalition of Chinese environmental groups accuses global IT brands of supply chain links to heavy metal poisoning cases in China
Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 6 May 2010 16.03 BST
Vodafone, BT and 27 other leading technology companies must do more to come clean about the potentially dirty and dangerous side of their manufacturing operations in China, according to a new investigation into heavy metal poisoning in the supply chains of global IT brands.
The investigation – carried out by a coalition of 34 Chinese environmental groups – traced a link between lead and cadmium contamination cases and the production of materials for mobile phone batteries and computer circuit boards for foreign companies.
Their findings suggest corporate promises at home of clean production, transparency and accountability can be lost overseas in the complex myriad of supply chains.
More than 4,000 people – mostly children – have been found to have unsafe levels of lead in their blood over the past year in a widening heavy metal poisoning case across several Chinese provinces.
Several of the cases have been widely reported but, until now, the focus of coverage has been on the Chinese factories involved and the weak oversight of environmental authorities. The new report adds a global context by highlighting the responsibility of the big IT firms higher up the supply chain to provide more information to the public and to ensure that low-cost production is not carried out at the expense of local people's health.
Following the supply trail, the investigators found that Shanghang Huaqiang Battery – which was implicated in the lead poisoning of 121 children in Fujian province last year – was a key equipment manufacturer for Narada Power Source. A screen grab of the latter's website claims it is a supplier for Vodafone, BT, and other leading global mobile telecoms brands. They also discovered several other violations, including the discharge of pollution into a Dongguan sewer by a Hong Kong-listed supplier of two multinational computer manufacturers.
The coalition of Chinese NGOs, which include Friends of Nature, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and Green Earth Volunteers, have contacted the named firms to ask for clarification, but the response has been mixed.
They say they have received prompt replies from some. But other firms, such as Vodafone and BT have not returned their calls and messages.
The NGOs have called on the foreign firms to be more accountable to the public.
"If a brand calls itself environmentally friendly and in favour of sustainable development, they should be concerned if their supply chains violate environment regulations," said Zhang Boju of Friends of Nature. "The least they should do is to reply to our request for information."
BT said it would reply after an internal investigation into the allegations. "To the best of our knowledge and belief, BT isn't procuring Shanghang Huaqiang Battery Company products via third-party suppliers. However, as part of our ethical and sustainable procurement policy, we are now reviewing this with supply chain partners to ensure that this is the case on a 100% basis," a spokesman wrote in an email reply to the Guardian.
Vodafone said it was unaware of the approach by the NGOs, but that it had a stringent code for ethical purchasing.
In an email response by the press office, the UK company said it had not been aware of the environment problems until last September, when its supplier - Narada - stopped all business with Shanghang after the lead poisoning came to light. Vodafone continues to source batteries from Narada, which it says "has extensive environmental, health and safety, and labour standard management systems in place."
But in a reflection of the problems that have emerged, the UK firm said it had updated its ethical purchasing code this year and was in the process of publishing a set of environmental principles for suppliers of mobile devices.
"These include a clause to reduce overall environmental impacts and hazardous materials in batteries," the company said.
The authors of the report expressed disappointment at the lack of a direct reply from the two UK companies and warned of complacency, particularly on the part of Vodafone.
"Their statement suggests everything is now in place. How can they say that after such a serious case in their supply chain?" said Ma Jun, the founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and a key figure in the NGO's study. "They demonstrated not a slim sense of sympathy or regret that the product it sourced was made by a factory that contributed to such a serious damage to the health of local communities."
It was not good enough, he said, for the firm to simply switch away from a supplier after it was found to have caused an environmental problem.
"I hope British companies like Vodafone and BT, known for their environmental commitment, could take the lead in greening the globalised manufacturing and sourcing. Not only is it essential in fulfilling their own environmental commitment, but it will be the single biggest help they could make in pollution control efforts in China and other developing countries."