Many of us share a creeping sense that our gadgets fund atrocities and injustices on the other side of the world. We read about suicides at Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, or about the conflict minerals in our devices that have funded genocide in the Congo, register a brief sense of disgust, and move on. Every major technology company uses the same supply chain, sourcing conflict materials that are hewn into hot gadgets by people working in conditions that would be familiar to Upton Sinclair. The market solution would be to vote with our dollars, but that's difficult when there isn't really a choice.
Photo via Grassroots Group on Flickr
The ethics behind the production of our tech devices has been a growing subject of concern for years, but has only recently reached critical mass. The topic is getting more media attention, and recently, Steve Jobs responded to a customer's email asking whether Apple sources its materials from Congo mines that support the country's long-running and unspeakably bloody civil war:
On Jun 27, 2010, at 10:53 PM, Steve Jobs wrote:
Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.
Sent from my iPhone
His hedging response didn't give Apple products a completely clean bill of health, but remains one of the few times a technology CEO has directly addressed these issues.
It’s frustrating for consumers because the problem is enormous and the solutions feel vague and ineffectual: we feel guilty that our desire for hot tech at bargain-basement prices funds inconceivable cruelty around the world, but scolding and guilt only go so far. As unsatisying as Jobs' vague response may be, it represents progress of a sort: a couple of years ago, few consumers even considered about the conditions under which their devices were produced. Now the awareness has grown, we need a concerted and organized effort to take these tech firms to task.
Conflict minerals are not the only ethical consideration to bear in mind. There is also the question of the manufacturing conditions within companies such as the suicide-prone Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, which produces products for many of the industry’s major players, including Apple, Dell and HP. Recent consumer outcry about the conditions at the factory have spurred a commitment to better work conditions and offer higher wages for the workers. It’s too early to determine whether this will improve work conditions in the company’s factories or is only a PR move in response to the 12 employee suicides that have occurred in the past year. That the discussion, and consumer and media outcry, affected any sort of change suggests that this is a step in the right direction, and demonstrates that consumer scrutiny has a demonstrable effect.
So how do we move past ineffectual guilt and demand our gadgets be produced ethically? For one thing, we have to wean ourselves off of bargain-basement tech: we can have ethically-produced computers, or we can have $500 Dell laptops, but we can’t have both. There are also shareable alternatives, re-purposing older devices and finding new value in them, or buying or sharing used devices. I’ve written about some of these community solutions in the past, such as online gadget trading and donation services, and tech-repair co-ops such as Santa Cruz’s Computer Kitchen.
Such measures are community solutions to slow down the consumption of unethically-produced tech, but they will only go so far. We must do what we can as consumers and raise a stink. Send persuasive letters of complaint to the CEO’s and COO’s of these companies that we support. Raise Hope For Congo offers an automated form letter of complaint that is sent to 21 electronics companies, though I’m wary how effective mass form letters are. If you can eke a few minutes out of your day, it would be more effective to write a personalized email or letter to the companies you support: Consumerist has an online directory that offers contact information for the heads of the largest electronic companies.
As the brisk sales of the iPad and the MacBook Pro in the middle of a recession demonstrate, our gadget lust isn’t going to slow. But we can no longer turn a blind eye to the violence, rape and unimaginable working conditions behind these products. It won’t be easy or fiscally comfortable to demand and purchase ethically-sourced tech, but these are sacrifices we must make if we believe that all are entitled to basic human rights.