Apple Audits: ‘Big Deal’ or ‘Fig Leaf’?

No matter what the press thinks, throwing a spotlight on working conditions should help it with consumers – and investors.

As a corporate executive trying to sort out the importance of Apple beginning to open itself to outside audits of the heavily criticized working conditions at its Chinese and other overseas plants, you’ll find Tuesday’s coverage by The Wall Street Journal and New York Times offering two very different perspectives.

Turn to page B2 of the WSJ, and there in the bottom left you’ll find 10 paragraphs about the audit (five in the online version.) It “had been expected,” the print version says. (Here's Apple's own press release on the move.)

The Times? “Apple, in Shift, Pushes an Audit of Sites in China,” it proclaims in its lead page-one story, anchored by what we in the media call a “gee-whiz” quote, from the corporate-accountability advocate group the Enough Project.

“This is a really big deal,” according to Enough’s Sasha Lezhnev. "The whole industry has to follow whatever Apple does.”

So how big a deal is it, really?

The Times offers nuanced coverage, not only analyzing the impact on Apple, but on other companies that have been slower to have overseas plant working conditions audited. Plus, it publishes an insightful study as a sidebar, on relative views about the labor monitor, the Fair Labor Association, that Apple -- and others before it -- picked for the job. (“The Fair Labor Association is largely a fig leaf,” one critic tells the Times.)

Whatever the credentials of the FLA, if Apple is a leader in many areas, it certainly hasn’t led in the realm of monitoring working conditions, as a controversial Times series earlier this month covered. [See “The Times Aims an Arrow at Apple.”] Nor does it lead when it comes to monitoring those conditions.

So, by making a big public deal of its decision to divulge information about working conditions at its overseas operations, and to expose the results from its outside auditors – even if the credentials of the auditors are somewhat suspect – it could well improve Apple’s standing with customers.

Not to mention with investors, who yesterday pushed Apple shares over $500 for the first time.