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Ethical-iPhone activists deliver petitions to Apple stores

Members from Change.org deliver a quarter of a million signatures to Apple's Manhattan flagship store in Grand Central Terminal on petitions calling for an ethical iPhone 5. It was part of the delivery of signatures to stores around the world.

Change.org member Sarah Ryan delivers a box filled with signatures to an Apple employee at the Grand Central Terminal store in Manhattan.
Roger Cheng/CNET

NEW YORK--Activists hand-delivered petitions with a quarter of a million signatures to Apple's Grand Central Terminal flagship store in Manhattan today, reiterating its plea for the company to adopt more ethical standards for the creation of its popular products.

The activists, organized by watchdog groups SumofUS and Change.org, are calling for Apple to pressure its suppliers--particularly the ones in China--to improve the working conditions and follow the same standards it observes in the U.S. That includes being more transparent about its vendors and allowing third parties to audit the quality of the work environment.

Apple has faced increasing pressure from consumer groups after a New York Times article last month raked Apple over the coals for the poor record of labor and safety issues at its supplier facilities, as well its cut-throat business practices that prohibited those manufacturers from making improvements. Change.org and SumofUS were able to collect 250,000 signatures after starting the petition late last month.

Apple, for its part, says it already does a lot to help with working conditions abroad.

"We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain," said an Apple representative. "We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made. Our suppliers must live up to these requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple."

Activist and Change.org director Shelby Knox said she was dressed as an 'ethical iPhone.' The phone's ethics weren't apparent in the costume. Roger Cheng/CNET

Last year, the company conducted 229 audits at supplier facilities, and it has set up a site to report on the working conditions of its suppliers.

The crowd of actual activists here was small, with a little more than a dozen supporters--far outstripped by the mass of media on the scene. The delivery, however, was part of a global effort that included petitions sent to stores in Bangalore, London, and Sydney. Activists are scheduled to deliver petitions to the San Francisco flagship store later today, according to Sarah Ryan, an organizer for Change.org.

Ryan downplayed the smaller crowd, noting that the intent was to hand-deliver the petitions. Ryan appeared with Change.org Director Shelby Knox, who said she was dressed as an "ethical iPhone," and a number of other activists, and walked up the steps to the store flanked by a throng of cameramen and reporters. Once at the entrance, Ryan delivered the box of petitions to an Apple employee, who accepted the box but declined to comment.

"Apple was definitely ready for us," Ryan said. "They were very polite. Hopefully, they understand the magnitude of the signatures.

The groups aren't seeking a boycott of Apple products, merely that the company change its views on its suppliers and working conditions overseas. But Ryan said the group would call for a boycott if Apple had the option to improve conditions and opted to focus on profitability instead.

Ryan acknowledged that Apple isn't the only company to use suppliers with substandard working conditions, but said that as a leader in the industry, Apple should lead the charge for change.

"We're asking them to take their motto, 'Think Different,' and apply it to other areas besides technology," she said.

Knox, who drew the most attention for her outfit, said she wanted to put more public pressure on Apple.

Mike Daisey, a monologist who wrote a one-man show called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," noted that Apple's brand could stand to take a hit if the company doesn't do anything. He noted that the same dilemma had previously hit Nike, which he said still prompts thoughts of sweatshops.

"You can quickly tarnish that brand," he said.

Update at 11:05 a.m. from San Francisco: Across the country representatives from Change.org gathered in front of Apple's flagship store in San Francisco, to deliver the same petition that was presented in New York and a handful of other Apple stores earlier today. Beyond the small group of representatives from Change.org there were no protestors, just a handful of press outlets chronicling the scene.

A man who identified himself as the store's general manager took the box of 250,000 printed signatures and said he would deliver them to Apple's corporate arm. He did not, however, provide any statement from the company about what it planned to do with them.

Change.org members showing off their signage ahead of delivering the box of petition signatures.
Change.org members showing off their signage ahead of delivering the box of petition signatures. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Change.org spokeswoman Charlotte Hill said she was pleased with how the handover went, citing that this particular petition was one of the largest the group has gathered on the site. When asked whether she thought this petition would bring changes to Apple's practices, she pointed out previous successes the group had with user-created petitions, including one for 1-800-Flowers that led to the company offering fair-trade flowers, as well as one against Bank of America's plans to add a $5 debit card fee that led to the bank dropping it.

Here's a video of the scene from the San Francisco store:

Now playing: Watch this: Ethical manufacturing petition delivered to San Francisco...

Updated at 10:35 a.m. PT: with Apple's response and additional background, then again at 11:05 a.m. PT to include details from the petition delivery to Apple's San Francisco store.

CNET staff writer Josh Lowensohn contributed to this report.

Editor's note, March 19, 2012: "This American Life" announced late last week that it's retracting a story it did recently about working conditions at Foxconn that included an interview with Mike Daisey as well as an excerpt from his monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." It said it was doing so because of "numerous fabrications" it found. CNET's Josh Lowensohn has the details in this story. Daisey's own statement is on his Web site. A recent investigative report by The New York Times looked at working conditions in Apple's supply chain in China.