Apple’s responsibility – aka what can we demand from our gadget dealers?

“Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible.” –

Last month, the New York Times published an article about the human cost of the iPad. It is a shocking, appalling and sadly an entirely unexpected report of the working conditions in Apple’s production plants in China, namely the one of Foxconn.

Up front, let’s be clear: This focuses on Apple, but similar reports could most likely be written about every single bigger electronics company as well as any of Foxconn’s competitors. Foxconn is one of the world’s largest producer of electronics. So while these two have been singled out, there’s a larger issue at stake here. Let’s also be clear that this doesn’t excuse anything.

All quotes are from the above-mentioned NYTimes article.

“Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost,” said Li Mingqi, who until April worked in management at Foxconn Technology , one of Apple’s most important manufacturing partners. Mr. Li, who is suing Foxconn over his dismissal, helped manage the Chengdu factory where the explosion occurred. “Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests,” he said.

Just a few days before the article appeared in the NYTimes, …

(…) Apple reported one of the most lucrative quarters of any corporation in history, with $13.06 billion in profits on $46.3 billion in sales. Its sales would have been even higher, executives said, if overseas factories had been able to produce more.

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

So who’s to blame here is a tough call to make. Yet, that doesn’t mean we should just go about our business. We as consumers are responsible — and that includes me personally, and maybe you, too — for buying all these gadgets and turning a blind eye on where they come from. The big production companies like Foxconn are responsible, because they work abuse their workers in the reprehensible way they do. And Apple (like their industry partners/competitors) is responsible, maybe most so. It is their management that decides to stick to these production plants and the way they operate, to not push them hard to demand better working conditions, to not be willing to give up a small chunk of their insane margin & profits and pass down a bit of it to the people building their products.

Just to be clear. This is Apple’s responsibility to be better than the bare minimum, or anything mediocre. If you claim excellence and a leadership position, you got to act accordingly. You’re the leading design company and know what’s best for you users, and you insist on providing the best experience out there? In other words, you demand the lead position from your designers? Then you better demand the same from your production.

At the same time, we as buyers need to ask ourselves: What do we demand from the companies that produce our gadgets?

Now, where all parties are involved and bear some part of responsibility, aka Any Real-Life Situation In A Global Economy, it’s easy to weasel out. “But it’s you, too, and they do it too, and these guys over there!” And by shifting and spreading responsibility around, we get away from the thing we discuss.

Let’s not do that.

We’ll never find one person/company to hold responsible, just as we often won’t be able to completely switch our personal behaviors radically in hope of some later change. On the one hand, everybody needs to do what they can, on the other – and I can’t overstate that – I think we should lean hard on these companies whose products we buy. In fact, I think this might sometimes be more effective than any boycott.

So yes, as a paying customer I demand that Apple takes the human rights of their factory workers seriously and goes way(!) beyond the market average in doing so. “But prices will go up,” the usual argument goes, “who’s going to pay for all that?” If those changes mean slightly higher prices for me, fine, I’m willing to bear some of that load. But I seriously expect a big chunk to come out of that hilariously high hardware margin and profit. A company that has higher revenues, margins and cash reserves than the rest of the field should well and truly put some of that money to good use. And I don’t mean a new, beefed up DRM. I mean some serious change of business.

Disrupting business? Fine, whatever. Disrupting production chains and post-consumer lifecycles, that’s the next frontier. It’d be nice to see Apple take the lead there.

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