Award-winning journalist Fran Hawthorne has been a writer or editor at Fortune, BusinessWeek, Institutional Investor, and other publications. She is the author of Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting,and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism, and books on health care and investing.
Because Apple fans love their iProducts so ardently, they have often attributed to Steve Jobs and Apple almost every positive quality they want to see in a CEO and a company, whether deserved or not. Thus, they have assumed that Apple reduces its energy use, recycles its electronic waste, treats its workers well, and generally is a socially responsible corporation.
Toward the end of Jobs’ reign, fans gradually and grudgingly began to realize that their heroes didn’t deserve all those haloes.
Now, ironically, Jobs’ successor, Timothy Cook, may turn out to be the real hero of the myth.
This week marks one year since Jobs stepped down as CEO. He would die just six weeks later. During the transition to the Cook era, customers and investors have, understandably, focused on the products and stock price.
But quietly, Cook has made some important changes in the area of corporate social responsibility.
While he was still the heir-apparent, Cook visited the major Chinese factory that manufactures iPhones, iPads, and other devices, after a series of suicides there by workers protesting the long hours and low pay. Jobs never bothered to check in person. Early this year, Cook brought in an outside monitor to follow up on the complaints and again inspected the site himself.
Even more amazing, Cook publicly identified 156 Apple subcontractors and published the monitor’s report. This, from the company that never talks to the press?
True, Cook has continued the tradition of shunning reporters. However, he showed up at a big meeting to speak with financial analysts—which Jobs rarely did—and has schmoozed with members of Congress.
Such outreach is important, because social responsibility is simply impossible without open communication. Transparency enables customers, neighbors, suppliers, employees, investors, and social activists to see exactly what the company is doing and, in turn, push the company on their own goals.
And Apple employees have started to relax. It’s no longer the case—as Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon famously wrote in their 2005 book iCon—that “You didn’t want to encounter him [Jobs] in a hallway, because he might not like an answer you gave... And you sure as hell didn’t want to get trapped on an elevator with him, because by the time the doors opened, you might not have a job.”
The new CEO is—well—a normal person, not a demigod. He is private but not obsessive and mercurial.
Of course these changes haven’t transformed Apple into the ideal of a socially responsible company. There are still serious problems in the factories in China and far too much wasted packaging and planned obsolescence for the products.
Nor does the praise of Cook diminish Jobs’ incredible talents and achievements. Probably only an obsessive and mercurial creative genius could have had the vision and persistence to transform the floundering concept of a portable music player into the iPod or to revive a cartoon shop called Pixar—to name just two of Jobs’ successes.
Cook may never invent or inspire the invention of a better product.
But he may well reinvent Apple as a better corporate citizen.