Gizmodo Vs Lifehacker: Should Apple Have To Make Ethical Gadgets?

Continuing concerns over conditions for workers in China's Foxconn factories and massive profits at Apple have combined to create a growing chorus suggesting Apple needs to alter its manufacturing processes. Is it reasonable to suggest that Apple should radically change its behaviour, and what should other gadget companies be doing? Gizmodo's Alex Kidman and Lifehacker's Angus Kidman thrash out the problem.

Lifehacker: There are really two issues here: should any company adopt ethical manufacturing processes where possible, and should Apple have to take the lead? From a purely human point of view, the answer to the first question is obviously "yes". If the price of getting a nifty new touchscreen device every 12 months is subjecting Chinese workers to miserable working conditions we wouldn't personally put up with for a second, then something should change.

A big part of the problem is that listed companies — a category which covers Apple and every one of its rivals — are not designed in any way to better the human condition. They are designed to make money. That is their purpose, and that will be their defence whenever they are challenged about their behaviour. "We must act in the interest of shareholders." Nothing else — human decency, ecological necessity, compassion — is allowed to get in the way of that goal.

It's easy to say Apple is being singled out because it is such a lightning rod company, but the fact is that it's much harder for Apple to argue that it can't afford to change its manufacturing process. It made $13 billion last quarter. It is clearly not operating on wafer-thin margins, which is the usual argument made in favour of using cheap offshore labour. If it made half as much money, Tim Cook could still wear fresh undies made from $US100 bills every day. As such, I'm rather sympathetic to the view that it should do something different (even though I can't imagine Apple changing its approach for a second).

Gizmodo: There’s a few obvious points to raise at the start here. Firstly, that Foxconn — usually the whipping boy for this kind of story, although it is not the only Chinese OEM out there — supplies products for a whole host of other companies as well. The odds are exceptionally high that whatever you’re reading this on right now at one point passed through a Foxconn factory.

That being said, Apple’s in, as you say, a rather unique position in that it has clearly negotiated (by whatever means) production quotas that mean that the company as a whole runs on rather fatter margins than the rest of the IT industry, and as such it could take a leadership position.

Which then raises the question: Is it already doing so? Tim Cook recently put out a company-wide email where he stated that

Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are.

In an odd way, I suspect that Apple’s legendary silence on most issues backfires on it here. When there are new products mooted, Apple’s stance of ultra-secrecy works in its favour, because the hype machine whips up at virtually no cost whatsoever to Apple. The flip side is that saying nothing gives the impression of something to hide, and so even when Apple does go on the record regarding worker rights or such, it’s viewed with deep suspicion. Fair? Probably not, but it’s not surprising that a company that uses PR spin in such a particularly controlled way would be under the microscope for any PR activities at all.

It also makes me wonder: what would actually happen if Apple decided to shift all of its manufacturing back to, say, California (so it could put “Designed and made in California” on the label) and under the purview of US law? Leaving aside issues of the treatment of US workers (Hormel/Spam being perhaps the classic example), the price of Apple stuff presumably goes up a bit, but the Foxconn factories are still there, making gadgets for everyone else. Nothing much would have changed.

If Apple set new policies that stated, say, minimum wages and conditions for its Foxconn workers, would that change the activities of everyone else using those same facilities? That seems unlikely. What’s more likely to effect actual change would be a shift in the flow of money, and that comes back to the consumer at the end of the process. You know.. us? The folks actually buying the gadgets at retail?

LH: Very true. It's easy to sign a petition arguing that Apple should change its approach; that doesn't cost us anything. I don't see a lot of people actually volunteering to give up their iDevice until Apple shifts locations. (A similar point got raised at Linux.conf.au by Karen Sandler; she noted that despite the apparent deep commitment to open software and free access, the room was filled with iPhones and Macs.)

Something else to bear in mind is that many of the loudest voices arguing against Foxconn want Apple to move manufacturing back into the States. The decline in US industry is a major issue in the presidential elections, so the argument is not really about making the world better for humanity; it's about making it better for America. What no-one seems to address much in that discussion is the question: if Apple did decide to make an example and pull out, what happens to all those Chinese workers? I agree Foxconn wouldn't disappear, but it would surely cut staff numbers.

I remember touring a Sony Ericsson factory in China in the mid-2000s. A point our guide constantly emphasised was that working in a factory for a Western manufacturer was a prestigious job and that competition for positions was fierce. We think it's an awful job; apparently for many Chinese it's a major career. In a similar vein, many commentators have pointed out that the overall suicide rate for Foxconn workers doesn't seem at variance with the Chinese national average.

It's dangerous to try and judge the appeal of a work environment when you don't know what the alternative is. Sure, you might not want to live and work in a factory with a 72-hour week — but would that be better than living on scraps in a farming village with no electricity?

Here's another thought. China is closer to Australia than the US is, so shipping stuff here is cheaper. If Apple did shift manufacturing to the US, its prices for Australians might go up to a level that makes current complaints about the "Apple tax" look rather hollow. It's really hard to come up with an Apple manufacturing scenario where everyone is happy with.

Yes, it would be entirely contradictory to demand better working conditions for everyone and still expect to pay rock-bottom pricing. But I don't have the impression that a lot of the discussion around this issue is especially rational. There's the familiar players: those happy to attack Apple at any price; those willing to defend its actions no matter what they are; and a huddled mass in the middle enjoying the products while suffering occasional twinges of annoyance or guilt. It's not exactly a situation likely to drive brilliant and rational collective analysis.

GIZ: Exactly. And that’s even without touching on the issues of what an “ethically” produced iProduct would actually entail. It’s not just a question of manufacturing, but also one of where the source minerals come from — you need to address issues like conflict minerals and the like and even, arguably, the conditions under which software is written. Once you start insisting on “ethical” you’ve got to set boundaries on it, and I suspect that nobody would be able to even begin to agree on what those boundaries would be. Although I do now have this image of a handwoven tablet made from recycled lentil skins floating through my mind . . .

Also implicit in the question is one of force; if Apple “should” make ethical gadgets, then presumably that’s going to be a question of force — as you noted above, companies act for the bottom line. That will mean getting the Chinese government involved at some kind of legislative level to pass laws that will make the country less competitive internationally. Somehow, I can’t see that happening.

And that brings it right back to the only kind of force that might make a change, and that’s one of the bottom line dollar. If consumers demanded it en masse, Apple might step up more than it is already doing, but in order for it to be meaningful that would have to be applied across every type and kind of IT gadget and gizmo. Anyone fancy going back to the typewriter?

LH: I'm not sure that typewriters are very green anyway. Liquid Paper surely can't be that good for the planet.

Even though I can't see anything changing, it is pleasing to see people thinking a little harder about what owning modern gadgets means in the bigger picture. The vast majority of Australian iDevice owners suffer from a massive case of #firstworldproblems a lot of the time (and I certainly don't exclude myself from that criticism). We're not going to fix any of these issues with a single petition, and we can't expect Apple to shoulder the burden for any change alone. But at least we're not just complaining about Siri sucking.

Giz: Of course not. It's not like Siri could tell us where to go in Australia to stop sucking anyway.

That's our say; have yours in the comments.

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