Deirdre McMurdy

When it comes to packaging and marketing, it's hard to imagine a slicker crew than the one at Apple.

Innovation is one thing. But the ability to pull various strands of it together and combine them in a way that anticipates or sparks new demand in a mature market, is nothing short of brilliant.

The catch, however, is that the sophisticated, affluent, creative types who form Apple's key target market want more than cool, shiny, functional tech equipment. They want to feel good about it — or at least not guilty about it.

Which is why Apple — with a brand-new iPad 3 ready for release — is earnestly attempting to convince its critics how much it cares about human rights and ethical corporate behaviour.

At the risk of sounding cynical, it's a shrewd move. And hiring a third party "auditor" to review the conduct and standards of its Chinese contractor is one of the shrewdest parts of the goodwill strategy.

The world's sweatshops may not have been eliminated by their exposure in the scandals that rocked Nike and other big brand clothing and sneaker companies in the late 1990s, but corporations have really learned how to manage the attached risks.

The consumers and investors who are addicted to low-cost goods and strong corporate balance sheets have learned their role in these dramas as well: express muted concern and then accept whatever voluntary measures are taken as the final word on the matter.

To be fair, companies as successful as Apple inevitably attract a great deal of jealousy from their rivals. It's not entirely surprising that this hullabaloo over workplace conditions in its Chinese factories coincides exactly with a new peak in its share price ($500-plus per share), its $13-billion profit in Q4 of 2011, and its consequent status as the world's most valuable company (in terms of market capitalization anyway).

The first signs of trouble surfaced about six months ago: Google accused Apple (and also Microsoft, which owns the content you're currently reading) of "patent bullying." The allegation was based on demands for a licensing fee for Android devices that use patents owned by Apple and others.