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Nikkei Asia Prizes

Nikkei Asia Prizes 2018: Ranking companies' environmental efforts

Former journalist showed how much Apple's suppliers were polluting

Ma Jun's work has led to greater transparency in China's environmental policy. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

Winner for economic and business innovation

Ma Jun

Founding Director, Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs

BEIJING -- Ma Jun is known as a man who caught Apple off guard.

In 2006, he founded the nongovernmental organization, Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), which has created indexes of how hard global companies operating in China work to conserve the environment. The companies included suppliers of parts and raw materials. IPE makes public the rankings of companies based on their environmental efforts.

In 2010, Apple had the dishonor of placing lowest of about 30 information technology companies ranked by the IPE that year. In the most recent ranking, the U.S. tech giant had worked its way up to first place.

When the IPE first sent Apple a questionnaire, the company did not provide a proper response, saying such information was a corporate secret. But after 18 months of discussions, it came to light how factories that supplied parts and raw materials to Apple were polluting the environment.

Ma said that once Apple recognized the problems, it started taking action to address them. Like Apple, some 200 companies have moved up in the rankings with IPE's help by overcoming problems that led to environmental pollution. This information can be easily accessed online by using an app developed by IPE.

Ma got involved with the environmental issue following a discovery he made while working as a journalist in the 1990s. He was working across China as a Beijing correspondent for the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper, South China Morning Post.

Ma was shocked by how bad environmental damage was wherever he went. Pollution was particularly bad in rivers and lakes. He looked into the details of what had happened, and in 1999 wrote a book called "China's Water Crisis."

The book was translated into English and he became known around the world as the author of the first report revealing the truth about water pollution in China. In May 2006, Time magazine named Ma one of 100 most influential people.

Ma founded IPE soon afterward. The first thing the organization did was to create a map of water pollution in China. It gathered information on water and air pollution released by the Chinese authorities and brought it together in a database. The map that showed pollution levels at a glance received a big response, putting pressure on the central and local governments to improve the environment.

Ma started thinking these efforts were not enough to solve the environmental problems, realizing it was impossible to prevent the destruction of the environment unless factories that caused the pollution, as well as companies that source parts and raw materials from these factories, corrected their actions.

IPE analyzed the authorities' records on factories that were in violation of environmental regulations. Companies that did business with factories not compliant with regulations receive low rankings from IPE.

Based on these criteria, this meant that no matter how hard Apple said it was taking measures to protect the environment, IPE was not persuaded. Ma said companies became willing to cooperate with IPE because they knew they would not have consumers' support unless they addressed their environmental problems. He continues to devote his life to this effort until the goal of bringing clean water and air back to China is reached.

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