The Ethics of Our Gadgets

Candy applesThere’s been a lot of news lately regarding Apple and its relationship with manufacturers and suppliers, particularly Foxconn. A lot of Atoms are big Apple junkies, but as a group we are very into sustainability, so of course it was quite troubling to hear that my iPhone might be the result of someone’s back-breaking shift in a poorly ventilated factory. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of troubles at Foxconn, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

The New York Times article I linked above gave a lot of details; some were encouraging, some not as much. In particular, I respect Apple a great deal for releasing reports honestly detailing the violations they discovered at some of the suppliers.

I also get the sense that there are several people at the company who wish to improve the situation in factories. At the same time it seems like nothing much will change as long as the desire for better working conditions in their supply chain is at odds with Apple’s business interests. In particular, I was concerned by the claim that Apple sets its purchase prices with these factories so low that the only way for the manufacturers to be profitable is to cut corners. That charge may not be entirely valid, but even if it is half-true such cut-throat pricing seems unnecessary for a company making as much profit as Apple.

Of course, it’s not just the low prices that are causing the issue, but the high volume of demand, which often causes manufacturers to ignore sustainable practices in their working conditions in order to increase output. And that’s where we come in – me and every other tech junkie, and not just the Apple ones. Almost every big name in technology uses Foxconn and other factories with questionable working conditions: Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Motorola, Nokia, and others. We consumers are the source of the high demand for their products; we’re the ones who stand in line for hours when the newest gadget comes out. We probably suspected, if we didn’t already know, that there’s a human cost to getting the newest toys really fast and really cheap. But I have found my conscience all too easy to ignore when tempted by the lure of new technology. I can’t speak for others, but I think it is time for me to make a change.

It may seem daunting to attempt to convince electronics manufacturers that we are serious about improving conditions for foreign workers. However, I’m convinced that if I and other like-minded folks all took a small step, together we might cover a lot of ground towards making a real difference. If you’re interested in this issue, I’ve listed below a few ways you can get involved.

1. Sign one of the petitions online urging Apple to improve supplier factory conditions:

2. Let your feet do the talking. Change.org organized a protest on Thursday at several Apple stores, with more likely to follow.

3. Research and get involved in organizations that work towards improving sustainability, such as:

4. Talk the loudest – with your money. Consider delaying or neglecting to purchase technology you don’t really need, or consider matching some portion of the money you spend on technology with donations to organizations working to improve the conditions for foreign factory workers. Here are a few options for donations:

Those are just a few ways to get involved. I’d love to hear more in the comments. I believe that real change is possible, when determination and creativity come together.