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China, Apple start to mend fences over pollution

The iPhone maker met with Chinese environmental leaders this week to work out some plans for reducing its supply chain's environmental impact.

Apple isn't the most popular company among environmental groups in China, but the iPhone maker is willing to extend an olive branch.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Chinese environmental leaders said that Apple is starting to "meet their concerns" over the impact its supply chain is having on the environment. The company has reportedly agreed to audit 15 of its component suppliers that have been accused of pollution, and engage in more oversight to ensure the environment is being preserved around supplier facilities.

"This is a major step forward," Ma Jun, a top Chinese environmental activist told the Journal in an interview published yesterday. "They asked these companies to take corrective plans and give a timeline, and Apple will verify whether all these issues have been resolved."

Apple's environmental troubles have been a thorn in the company's side for years. However, over the summer, they hit a tipping point in China when the country issued a 46-page report alleging that Apple suppliers had tried to conceal pollution around their facilities.

"The large volume of discharge in Apple's supply chain greatly endangers the public's health and safety," China's Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs wrote in its report at the time, adding that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company tried to "take advantage of loopholes" in the country to "grab super profits."

For its part, Apple flatly denied those claims, saying that it expects high social-responsibility standards from its supply partners.

"We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made," the company told Reuters at the time.

But Apple's troubles go far beyond just China. Last week, Greenpeace released its "greener electronics" rankings, and said Apple scored a zero out of a possible 10 in clean-energy policy advocacy, paper sourcing, and using recycled plastics. That said, the group said Apple has done a better job of avoiding conflict minerals, selling energy-efficient products, and removing hazardous materials from its devices. But even with those kudos, Apple scored a 4 out of 10 in the organization's company rankings, placing it behind HP, Dell, and Nokia.

For China, however, components in products are the least of its worries. Now that Apple has agreed to audit its suppliers, the country now expects the company to be more transparent.

"Apple is trailing far behind in terms of transparency and pushing for the polluters to be held publicly accountable for their problems," Ma told the Journal.

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.