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Is There Such a Thing as Ethical Technology?

- 2012.08.30 - Tip Jar

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Hard to believe, but as recently as 15 years ago, the adjective the media most attached to Apple Computers was "beleaguered". In 1996, exiled founder Steve Jobs returned to the company, the following year negotiating a cash infusion from archrival Microsoft to forestall bankruptcy or purchase.

In the years that followed, Apple released a series of successful products: consumer-focused personal computers like its iMac and MacBook series, iPod music players, iPhone smartphones, and iPad tablets, along with popular services like its iTunes Store. Now it's arguably the most profitable company in the world, sitting on over $100 billion in cash.

Is Apple green?At the same time, though, Apple has been increasingly criticized: Has its success come with environmental costs and have its profits been gained through the exploitation of Third World (predominately Chinese) workers?

Similar complaints could be raised against any company in the consumer electronics and technology industries; Apple has not been singled out by virtue of being the worst polluter or sweatshop operator in its industry.

(Apple has also been criticized for its closed systems - gadgets that make it hard to run apps from sources other than Apple's closely controlled App Store for instance. Another stream of recent criticism of Apple has focused on its tendency to use the courts to discourage competition with its products.)

Apple has become the focus for criticisms of its environmental and labour records for a number of reasons - the company aims its products at well-educated artsy types, people who like to imagine they "think different" (in the words of an iconic series of Apple ads from the late 1990s).

People think of Apple as associated with liberal causes and values - US right-wing radio host, Rush Limbaugh, who apparently prefers to use Apple products, recently commented: "Apple wouldn't let me in the door if I went out there. We tried for years to get them as advertisers; they wouldn't talk to us . . . Politically they have nothing in common with me."

As a result, critics tend to hold Apple to higher standards - expecting the company to "walk the walk". Would Think Different advertising campaign subjects like Gandhi or John Lennon have approved of the company's behavior?

Its recent success has made Apple a standard-bearer for its industry. Just as its competitors have arguably copied Apple's smartphone and tablet designs, if Apple leads in environmental or work conditions standards, its competitors may feel pressured to respond in kind.

Finally, Apple has managed to be successful marketing its products as higher-priced models; that gives it more flexibility to make changes to its environmental or labour practices than competitors who are focusing exclusively on selling products at the lowest-possible prices.

In response to criticisms from Greenpeace, among others, Apple has minimized the use of toxic substances in its product line - the company notes, for instance, that all of its displays use mercury-free backlighting and arsenic-free glass. Apple has reduced the amount of packaging and is making increased use of recycled plastics and paper and vegetable-based inks, and notes that the energy needs of a number of its newer facilities - in the US, Ireland, and Germany - are entirely met by renewable energy sources.

While Apple (and other tech companies) have been responsive to criticisms from environmental activists, it isn't all good news. Recent Apple models, such as MacBook laptops and iPhones and iPads, have included non-removable batteries and soldered on memory chips, making them harder to disassemble for recycling. These product designs allow for larger batteries in slimmer cases; now models from many of Apple's competitors similarly feature non-removable parts - sleek design trumping recyclability.

Apple does little of its own manufacturing. Instead, along with most of its competitors, much of its manufacturing takes place at factories in China owned by companies like Foxconn Technology. There, workers have complained about long hours and poor working conditions - including a January 2012 protest when 150 workers went onto the roof and threatened to commit suicide.

Foxconn, with hundreds of thousands of employees, produces an estimated one-third of the world's consumer electronic products. Employees in its factories work an average of 83 hours of overtime a month despite Chinese labour law setting a maximum of 36 hours.

(Some note that despite attention paid to suicide-attempts among Foxconn employees, their suicide rate is lower than China's national average. And despite employee protests, Foxconn claims it continues to get ten applicants for every job opening.)

Apple publishes a code of conduct for its suppliers (including Foxconn) and has asked the American Fair Labour Association to investigate and publicly report on working conditions in Foxconn factories. Recently, wages were raised by 25% and overtime hours have been capped.

Foxconn's long-term answer to criticisms of its labour practices, however, may be twofold: It is looking to move production from China to even lower-wage countries - Foxconn's parent company Hon Hai has been building manufacturing capabilities in Vietnam and Brazil.* As well, it is investing heavily in automation, removing the need for even low-wage workers.

(Foxconn is not necessarily the worst sweatshop operator; it has become the target of complaints because it is among the largest.)

Moreover, technology and consumer electronics products are rarely manufactured from start to finish at one place - an Apple laptop computer can include a hard drive (often manufactured by a different company in Thailand), a display (perhaps manufactured by Apple competitor Samsung), memory chips, and other parts sourced from a variety of manufacturers.

It gets even harder to track back to where the original raw materials come from. Microsoft has said, "We are working with our suppliers to trace the source of all minerals used in our products that could potentially come from conflict zones." Noteworthy, though, is the implication that right now Microsoft is unclear what is the source of the raw materials used in its products.

It's not currently possible to purchase an "ethical" computer, smartphone, tablet, or other technology or consumer electronic product. Nevertheless, pressure from environmental and labour activists has resulting in some gains. Consumer boycotts of Apple will not result in change, though, if the result is simply to purchase the product of one of its competitors.

Instead, long-term change may only occur, as Greenpeace's Tom Dowdall suggests, with "a change in business model towards long-lasting, durable, upgradeable technology where the focus is on selling the service, not on new devices." LEM

* Foxconn also has facilities in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, India, Japan, Malaysia, and Mexico.

First published in Columbia Journal, September 2012.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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