Apple does a 180 with suppliers in China

June 7, 2013, 11:22 AM UTC

FORTUNE — Ma Jun, the noted Chinese environmental activist, says Apple has gone in a short period of time from being the most uncooperative of electronics companies to “one of the most proactive IT suppliers” of all.

Speaking at a panel on supply-chain trends at the  Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, China, Ma practically gushed about Apple’s change in behavior. He said that when his group, the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, initially approached 29 big Western brands about cooperating with its environmental work, 28 responded — all but Apple. “They said they had a long-term policy against” participating with such groups. Things changed after Ma’s group published two reports critical of Apple. “They approached us,” he said. “They said, ‘We need transparency.’”

Ma is a well-known former journalist who has devoted considerable energy to water issues in China. His group collects pollution data on Chinese companies and shares it with Western companies to help them better understand the ramifications of their supply chain partners. He said Apple not only has begun cooperating with his organization, it has become a positive force on the overall supply chain ecosystem in China.

MORE: Complete coverage of the Fortune Global Forum

“They have gone the furthest in motivating key suppliers,” he said, noting that Apple has become even more aggressive than its IT-industry peers in adopting progressive environmental policies in China.

The change in attitude is so pronounced that Ma’s institute published a third report earlier this year with an early section describing “Apple’s Transformation.” The bulk of the work Apple (AAPL) has done began in 2012, after the death of Steve Jobs. It is generally believed that Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has been traveling to China as a supply chain executive for many years, has been supportive of Apple’s cooperation with environmental groups in a way that Jobs was not. Ma said he has not met with Cook but that he has held meetings with other high-level Apple executives.

Apple typically maintains that its environmental and labor-rights records have always been good. Yet the Chinese group’s report makes clear that if nothing else, Apple’s attitude toward discussing its record and opening itself up to criticism have changed. It’s an intriguing window into how the company might change in other ways. It is notoriously secretive and closed to the type of mutually beneficial dialogues most other big companies conduct with each other, the press, and other groups that don’t bear directly on making and marketing their products.

Empires changes their ways slowly, a topic that has been much debated about China at the Fortune conference in Chengdu. The same is true for Apple.