There is no ethical smartphone

But if we use our amazing devices correctly, we can change that

Published February 23, 2012 4:00PM (EST)

     (Reuters/Bobby Yip/Salon)
(Reuters/Bobby Yip/Salon)

John Wood, self-described phone geek, had a problem. He couldn't "upgrade with confidence," he confessed on his blog. The "ethical implications" of the globalized, labor-exploiting manufacturing process confounded him. The more he knew, the more constrained he felt. In his capacity as campaigns and new media officer for the Trades Union Congress in the United Kingdom, it was his job to be a voice for the labor movement online. But in his personal life, just getting online meant trampling all over the workers of the world.

Wood's dilemma extended far beyond the well-publicized abusive working conditions at Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturing giant that assembles Apple's iPhone, along with countless other consumer electronic devices. Labor and environmental abuses are endemic throughout the global electronics industry, from the mining of the minerals used to make the basic components, through their assembly and all the way up to (and beyond) the disposal of last year's obsolete model. There's no getting around the hard truth: right now, there is no such thing as an "ethical smartphone." Or, for that matter, an ethical flat-screen TV, digital camera or any kind of personal computer.

Wood embarked on a quest to see if he could find, at the very least, a smartphone that wasn't quite so badly compromised as all the others. He started contacting major smartphone manufacturers -- Apple, HTC, Samsung, Nokia -- to ask what their policies were regarding labor abuses and supply-chain monitoring. He pondered East Asian government reports detailing labor law violations at individual links in the outsourcing chain. He weighed whether to reject Nokia for also outsourcing production to Foxconn, or to give the Finnish company points for thinking more deeply about sustainability issues than its competitors. He wondered whether he should cut Samsung a break because the company kept more of its manufacturing in house in South Korea -- where the labor laws were better enforced than in China or Vietnam.

He finally settled on a Samsung Galaxy Note, primarily on the basis that Samsung had managed to steer clear of a Taiwanese LCD screen component manufacturer under investigation for multiple labor law violations. But barely a week after purchasing the phone (which, of course, he loves) he discovered that Samsung has been criticized as both a union-buster and for failing to protect its workers from dangerous industrial chemicals.

In his attempt to find nuance that would salve his conscience, all Wood discovered were varying "shades of gray." As he conceded in an email, there is "no ideal solution." For every smartphone manufacturer, "the model of globalized production is fundamentally similar."

So if you are looking for shopping recommendations, you will be disappointed. But that doesn't necessarily imply despair -- or that there isn't any chance at all of improving working conditions for electronics workers around the world. If enough people organize and apply pressure, anything's possible. And ironically, billions of people around the world are now in possession of the most powerful tools for facilitating grass-roots organization ever invented: ethically compromised smartphones!

The implied paradox is a head-scratcher, to be sure.

"It seems odd to me that the devices that empower us so much," Wood says, "should themselves be the products of alienation. But it's even more interesting to think that they could be one of the first cases that can actually help overcome the gulf between the different worlds of producers and consumers. A demonstrator in Taiwan can film an action at HTC on their smartphone, and upload it to Facebook, where six degrees of separation can see it viewed by half the people on the planet. And if you can't forget it and do want to find out more, a couple of clicks can make direct contact and link your device with that of people on the other side of the planet, whose existence you'd never given a second thought about before."

Welcome to the fundamental contradiction of the age of the smartphone. The same gizmos that enable the ultra-efficient globalized exploitation of labor -- computers, broadband networks, digital communication devices -- are the tools that we must use to address and overcome those inequities. Sounds crazy, but it's true: If you want an "ethical iPhone," you're going to have to use your unethical iPhone to get it.

At the website for MakeITfair, a "European project" dedicated to exposing labor abuses and environmental problems in electronics manufacturing (the "IT" stands for "information technology"), curious visitors can delve as deeply as they like into reports documenting woes at every step of the global supply chain. Mistreatment of coltan miners in the Congo. Labor abuses in the production of game consoles in China, mobile phones in India, and digital cameras in Vietnam. To close out the cycle, there is even an investigation of the health hazards involving in dumping old computers and other e-waste in Ghana.

Reviewing the information is a troubling experience. As Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association has said, "none of us want to be accessories after the fact in a human rights abuse in the global supply chain." But escaping from the crime scene is hard. No matter how enlightened a consumer you might intend to be, outside of retiring to a cave and subsisting on a diet of nuts and berries there is virtually no way to avoid getting trapped in the web of global exploitation complicity. Phones, video games, TVs -- heck, there's a non-negligible chance that your coffee maker has a circuit board connected to Congo coltan mining profits that subsidize rape and murder in Africa and sweatshop child labor somewhere in Asia. How's that for a wakeup call?

Disturbed by your contemplation of these inconvenient facts, you might feel impelled to see what options there are for action, as suggested by MakeITfair.

    Activities YOU can do:

  • Join our makeITfair Facebook group and support the cause
  • Support the cause by changing your facebook profile picture to the makeITfair logo
  • Follow us on Twitter. Retweet our messages or send your own ones. Post everyday a few messages to get the buzz going on.

There are other action items, but that's how the list begins. And at first glance, in comparison to the horrors that you have just been mulling over, the recommendations seem ludicrous. The cognitive disjunction between what's happening to workers all over the world and the effort necessary to retweet 140 characters on Twitter is a cruel joke. Teenage Chinese workers are pulling double shifts and I'm clicking the Facebook "like" button for a link to "This American Life's" report on Mike Daisey's monologue about Apple? Is this what Karl Marx meant by solidarity?

Well, actually, maybe, in the sense that a key part of solidarity is the simple expression by the privileged that they are on the same side as the exploited. But there's more to the social media phenomenon than just its utility as an echo chamber. As we follow the daily zigs and zags of current events in today's world, it's becoming harder and harder to deny the real, physical impact of social media hubbub. We don't have to look far, especially in the last couple of months. We see this in the skyrocketing fame of a New York Knicks point guard or the successful grass-roots mobilization against new copyright laws and bank fees. Just two weeks ago, you might have read a tweet about the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Foundation withdrawing breast cancer screening funding from Planned Parenthood and without taking your thumbs off your iPhone, you might have sent a donation to Planned Parenthood and called your congresswoman to express your outrage.

And change happened. Just because action is easy doesn't make it irrelevant. It's not really an exaggeration to say that Planned Parenthood raised $3 million in three days because of a tweet heard round the world. So now we have a new challenge: What's it going to take to get that crowd-sourced funding fire hose pointed at workplace auditing programs or union-organization efforts?

On Monday, Apple announced that it had asked the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit dedicated to "improving working conditions in factories around the world," to audit conditions throughout its immense supply chain. There are plenty of reasons to look askance at Apple's move. The Fair Labor Association is a voluntary organization whose members include many of the companies whose supply chains require a close investigation. At a talk at the TED conference in 2010, founder and president Auret van Heerden made it clear that he saw multinational corporations as the only vehicle capable of ensuring lasting improvement in workplace conditions in the developing world -- "the only transnational actor with real power to affect people's lives" -- something that may seem strange to those who see multinational outsourcing and offshoring strategies as one of the major forces undermining the standards of living for workers in the developed world. (And indeed, Heerden immediately surprised and dismayed Apple's critics by gushing about how great Foxconn's factories were.)

But Apple's move still represents a step in the right direction. As Mike Daisey, the monologist whose "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" is probably the most compelling exploration of the challenge posed by the unethical iPhone, wrote on his blog, Apple's action provided "a testament to so many who have made their voices heard."

Arguably, Daisey's monologue, reinforced by some blockbuster reporting from the New York Times, are the proximate causes of Apple's move. But let's not underestimate the public relations impact of the hundreds of thousands who have signed petitions calling for Apple to manufacture an ethical iPhone, or the protests in Apple's stores, or the way that a report on NPR or in the New York Times can get rebroadcast and reinforced and amplified when millions of Facebook and Twitter users start liking and retweeting and posting recommendations. Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine that what happened to Bank of America or Susan G. Komen might happen to Apple? Indeed, the more we see the power of social media-facilitated organizing demonstrated, the more we're likely to push harder.

When we look back at the events of the last couple of months it is beyond obvious that social media is starting to wag the dog. The mainstream media is taking its cues for what to cover from what people are mouthing off about online. Brands that have been built up over decades and are worth hundreds of millions of dollars can be destroyed in a blinding flash. Even a force as mighty as globalization may finally have met its match -- in the network and devices that link the entire world into one we're-not-going-to-take-it-anymore collective.

"Up till now," says Wood, "the only people who had a big picture on globalization were the corporations that made the deals and kept them hidden from people at both ends of the equation. But now potentially ordinary producers and consumers have a tool to help us understand how globalization works, and to seek to do something about it. Smartphones and tablets could be a breakthrough product that then gets us thinking about the influence of globalization in manufacturing more widely."

Right now, it's a loser's game to try to find a more ethical smartphone. Everything and everyone is compromised. But it's a winner's game to figure out how to use what we've got to bring progressive change. We have computers in our pockets that not only connect us more easily and effortlessly to information about what's going on in the rest of the world than ever before, but also connect us to each other. We might (and we should) feel guilty and ashamed when we stop to think about the suffering of the workers who built those devices, and it sure seems like there's a hell of a market opportunity for someone who figures out how to build these devices through a clean and green, worker-friendly supply chain, but in the meantime, our best option is to use our devices to learn more, donate money where it is most effective, and make our voices heard. In this crazy ultra-connected world, we might end up surprised at how fast things can turn around.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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