Can you buy technology with a clean conscience?
Posted on 25 May 2012 at 16:13
Pitifully paid workers, weak environmental policies, supply chains that allow manufacturers to abdicate responsibility. Simon Brew asks: is it even possible to buy ethically sound technology?
PC World sells, at the time of this magazine going to press, 85 different laptops. Its website stocks 26 variants of the Apple iPod, and an extensive range of tablet computers – each keenly priced, and capable of performing tasks that sizeable desktop PCs of a decade ago would have struggled with.
Chances are, too, that each was made in a factory in China. The reason for this is simple: workers are cheaper in most Eastern economies, and the saving made on labour greatly outweighs the expense of moving tankers full of products to the other side of the world.
In the past, when people have voiced ethical concerns surrounding technology, it’s typically been centred on environmental issues. Such issues, as we’ll see, are still relevant, but it’s increasingly the human consequences of manufacturing technology that are coming under the microscope.
Find out moreThe ethical tech buyer's checklist
How is the end user supposed to know just how their shiny new product came to be? Do they even care that there’s a sporting chance the manufacturer itself couldn’t tell you where every last component came from? And if they did, how is it possible to have confidence that the product they’ve just bought conforms to any kind of ethical standard? Or do we all just want to buy the cheapest product available?
Is it even possible to buy any technology with a clean conscience, without bankrupting ourselves in the process?
Focus on Foxconn
On 2 January 2012, more than 150 workers at the Foxconn Technology Park in Wuhan, China, took to the roof of the factory and threatened to commit suicide. It took two days to talk them down from the top of the three-storey plant.
The protest started in response to Foxconn’s decision to move hundreds of workers to a different production line. Reporters (including those from PC Pro) dutifully published this news; ironically, they did this using equipment that was more than likely a product of said Foxconn facilities in the first place.
Suicides and stand-offs over poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories have been rife for many years, to the point where the company has installed nets to break the fall of potential jumpers. The facilities, which manufacture hardware for many major companies, are responsible for the production of more than a third of the world’s consumer electronics products, employing hundreds of thousands of workers.
Suicides and stand-offs over poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories have been rife for many years
Yet those workers are cheap. You don’t have to look far for stories of six-day weeks and 12-hour days among employees, with pay rates reported to start at a mere 30p an hour.
This, it should be noted, partly reflects the lower cost of living in China than in the UK. But even so, it’s the kind of substantive saving in manual labour that companies including Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and Acer have been keen to take advantage of, building up sizeable profits for themselves in the process. Apple alone racked up $20 billion of gross profit in the last 13 weeks of 2011.
Increasingly, these firms have come under fire for continuing to support factories that pay such meagre wages and provide such poor working conditions.
Yet, the question of employee treatment isn’t as clear-cut as campaigners may lead you to believe. The suicide rate in Foxconn’s factories, for instance, is below the national average figure for China as a whole.
A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall....
The truth is that as 'consumers' we have no choice at all when it comes to ethically sourcing our electronics purchases.
The twin pillars of 'Free' Markets and Globalisation support a worldwide production and trading model that encourages (at the very least) a race to the bottom in terms of pay, workers' rights and Health & Safety.
Like it or not, Apple is the poster boy of this model, and Steve Jobs was its architect. Apple's revival is often attributed to the 'great design' and usability of its products. There is some truth in this.
BUT the biggest contribution to Apple's rocketing share price and $100 Billion cash mountain comes from products 'Designed in Cupertino CA', and manufactured where labour is cheap and regulation limited. Apple was the first Western company fully to exploit the 'outsourcing' of production as described in the article.
The appalling working conditions and lousy pay of workers in Asian factories is not some surprising unintended consequence of this modus operandi, it is the whole point of it!
The Western World's business leaders are mainly in thrall to extremist right wing libertarian economic and political dogma that developed out of the Reganomics of the 1980's. This (in essence) states that 'Free Markets' are self-regulating mechanisms which allow 'enterprise' to flourish, cut out waste, and allow almost unlimited growth. Greed is good, regulation is bad. This is not the place to analyse the obvious flaws in this.
It's not too hard to figure out from this creed that given an opportunity businesses will switch production to where the costs are lowest. This is where wages are low and working conditions are either loosely or completely uncontrolled.
This is completely unsustainable for any length of time. The current economic crises are a direct consequence of what has happened. Greece (for example) can never be 'competitive' (with Asia and developing economies) whilst it is in the EU, because in order to compete it would have to remove all the workers' protection, Health & Safety and Human Rights that EU membership entails.
By wittgenfrog on 26 May 2012
Bravo Mr Brew
I think this is great feature to appear in PC Pro. Not only is it erudite and well informed but there's a very strong message here for all of us.
To add a few thoughts. Foxconn's suicide rate may well be relatively lower than the Chinese national average. However, according to the China Daily: "China has one of the highest suicide rates in the world". So, Foxconn's rate may still be abhorently high.
Article: "China's suicide rate among world's highest" by Xie Chuanjiao
China Daily) http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-09/11/cont
While Mr Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman's work is laudable I'd disagree with his assertion that "“other companies bear full responsibility for the working conditions in the supply chain”. Full responsibility would be where a company facilitates, for example , a chinese worker, suing the company in a US court for US damages.
Mr Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman's whose problem is that this is an appalling situation. It makes sense for him to give credit to companies that are moving towards fairer conditions even in the knowledge that even those companies can do more.
While writing does anyone know if this has happened or the civil legal mechanism is in place for them to do so?
It is not true to say that we have "no choice", rather that at present we are in the position of being able to make very imperfect choices. However, these choices and the companies positions have changed. Choices change not just because of "market forces" bt by people of good heart and will underatking activities to change an unethical situation. Mr Brew's article is part of this process and we can all participate, whether it be by raising awareness, writing to an MP, joining or joining a pressure group. As with many struggles it can feel like too long a battle with not enough achieved but things have changed and they will change as long as we all keep up the struggle and then value those values once achieved.
At present both the Europeans and the American's allow companies and individuals to be tried in their courts even when an offence occurs outside their borders.
This is a huge point of pressure that can be employed by all of us. Companies talk of "responsibility" implicitly meaning "the power they have over themselves." If, in fact, they don't move enough then the pressure will increase for them to be bound by the more liberal legislation of other companies that they operate in; even in cases where an offence occurs outside that countries borders.
Bravo to Mr Brew for this article.
By simontompkins on 26 May 2012
should edit better
sorry my bad editing
"While writing does anyone know if this has happened or the civil legal mechanism is in place for them to do so?"
Should read; "what does anyone know about the mechanism for a Chinese person for suing a company in a US or European court"
By simontompkins on 26 May 2012
I bet the standard of living in China won't actually be anywhere near as good as what it is in the UK!
By formula_86 on 26 May 2012
That we have 'no choice' is simply a factual statement. As far as I am aware the vast bulk of electronic components are manufactured in Asian factories, mainly in China. Manufacturers don't necessarily allow you to purchase only those made in (say) Malaisia.
Whilst I admire your implicit optimism, your model of change depends on democratic accountability. Corporations have only one responsibility: to shareholders and that is limited to 'fiduciary' performance. As the majority of shareholders of most significant Western enterprises are other corporations, we have an unvirtuous circle. A self-perpetuating cycle of greed, self-agrandisement. A moral and ethical vacuum.
The places where all the West's subcontracting is (re)located to are those where there is little or no accountability, democratic or otherwise. As I opined in my previous post: That's the whole point.
The notion that our Legal system will somehow ride to the rescue is sadly flawed. If the Law can't \ couldn't stop Blair & Bush invading Iraq, and neither can be touched after the event; we stand no chance to bring the likes of Jobs & co to book.
This is all about a massive re-alignment in the World's economy. The trend, from the late 19th Century through to the late 20th Century of a fairer, more redistributive economic system seems now to be past. We are seeing the emergence of a new ruling class using economics to impose a new 'feudalism' on us, the masses.
By wittgenfrog on 27 May 2012
I do not think that the consumer is the instigator of the placement of manufacturing bases.
It is the manufacturer that tries to match prices with competitors, [else would not be in business]. In that competing comes less scrupulous, corner cutting, poor humanitarian swindlers.
Tainted Milk and bad capacitor sourcing are just a couple of instances where a world wide impact has been felt because of bad control factors.
The copying industry in the Far East (but sometimes within Europe) also tends to prove that the consumer does not always get the best deal for their money. There are times (albeit rare) when copied goods are better than the bona fide ones!
An article I read alleges major coffee producers operate where plantations use slaves and or child labour. While this is to keep down the cost of production, using slave and Child labour in 2010-12. ought to be outlawed world wide. It would be difficult, however to prevent exploitation because all businesses and capitalism relies on this.
Although we believe the UK is all above board, I wonder how Scrapie got from sheep to cattle to humans CJD ?
Herbaceous cows (which eat grass)were fed animal protein (sheep's brain meat) that had been infected with disease.
Mass production always has the manufacturer trying to cut costs. If raw components are only 1p difference, but millions are used, it adds up to a large saving.
Presently the West has a way of saving by sending all manufacturing bases to China or Korea: Call Centres to India and UK workforce to the dole queue.
China is also suffering, when the boom years have turned to recession. The amount exported has shrank dramatically, a housing bubble has imploded and factories have started to close.
UK will pick up again eventually, and we should be on our guard that exploitation does not occur in UK.
By lenmontieth on 28 May 2012
And who's fault is this?
It is a bit ironic that PC Pro focuses in bang-per-pound ratio in the reviews so much and looks for cheaper alternatives for every product (Samsung Galaxy Pad for 199 anyone?), and yet complains about lack of ethically produced gizmos that would cost more due to labour costs over here.
By radnor on 29 May 2012
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