Ethical Electronics Manufacturing

On 10/02/2012, in Technology News, by Norman Dean

“Ethical iPhone” protests raged through Grand Central Terminal and elsewhere yesterday, as fed-up Apple fans proved that they were willing to do anything to protest conditions in Apple’s Chinese manufacturing facility short of not going to Apple stores.

As Tim Worstall has pointed out, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about Foxconn’s manufacturing in China, or Apple’s relationship with it. Oppressive conditions are par-for-the course over there, and Foxconn actually has a slightly lower suicide rate than China writ-large. and any electronics company worth their salt does their manufacturing in similar conditions: it’s the game they all play, and it’s the game we demand when we ask for cheap electronics.

And yet, there were no Microsoft protests yesterday, no Samsung protests orNokia protests. Apple continues to receive the brunt of public fury over Chinese manufacturing conditions. Why?

Apple was supposed to be our friend. They were the techno-hippies, the plucky little company getting by on style and an intuitive understanding of the way we used their electronics. Apple got us. We trusted Apple. When big, bad Microsoft was on trial for antitrust, Apple was trying to make computers fun.

Everyone likes to buy things — if America has proved anything over a couple of centuries, it’s that. But for a certain set, all purchases from larger corporations come with a certain measure of guilt that must be offset by perceived ethical practices, or more likely, clever design. Whole Foods is one champion of that game, Apple is another. But the perceived ethics are just a case of reverse engineering on the part of the consumer: Apple seems responsible because we like them, and we like responsible things.

It should be pretty obvious that Apple is not a corporation for hippies. They’ve built their entire hardware business off the premise of whipping us into a frenzy every two years over the latest incremental iteration of one of their products, prodding us into buying some shiny new piece of hardware and throwing our old model out. If that doesn’t work, planned obsolescence kicks in and the device craps out shortly after the upgrade opportunity anyway. The cost to repair your PowerBook at the genius bar ends up just $2-300 less than getting a new one, and… Apple knows the game.

Apple isn’t going to move their manufacturing out of oppressive conditions. The cost of raising their manufacturing expenses to please would dwarf the benefits they’d get by pleasing those who wished that their products were nicer, and as people like the FBI have recently made clear, Steve Jobs and the company he built were nothing if not Machiavellian.


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