Monday, February 20, 2012

Conscientious Consumption: Owning the Evil Toy

I have many weird, uncomfortable feelings about this iPad I got for Christmas. For starters, it's truly the fanciest thing I've ever possessed. I've never owned a new computer, a new TV, a smart phone or a digital camera, and this elegant device can stand in for all those things. It's just so pretty and current. Almost all my other stuff is second hand. I've never had the hot new toy before and honestly, I was a little scared to handle it.

Now I'm addicted to the thing, which makes it easy to forget my other major misgiving. This beautiful machine was produced in one of the world's most infamous sweatshops. I've tried in the past couple years to avoid purchasing sweatshop-produced apparel and other stuff, and even blogged about my efforts in previous Conscientious Consumption posts. I started hearing about Foxconn (where Apple iPhones and iPads are made) a year or so ago, after a slew of employees committed suicide. In January, the New York Times published a series of articles about Apple's foreign production, including this fascinating Foxconn exposé. It's old news now, but if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

I often feel ashamed of my iPad, but I feel more ashamed of the fact that it took me two weeks to read that article. I was brought up Catholic, so I realize that this may just be my own special neurosis. But in my experience, a lot of people get testy when confronted with the subject of sweatshop labor. I suspect that consumer guilt is the major reason. No one wants to feel like an asshole for owning something, so it's less bothersome to just not think about it. 

That was me a few weeks ago. Then I made myself read the article and I learned a few things that have given me a new perspective on my role as an Apple consumer: 

While it's really easy to blame Foxconn for unfair labor practices, those practices have everything to do with what Apple demands from its vendors.

- While all computers are produced in foreign countries (mainly in China), the Apple/Foxconn dynamic is not universal. 
"Many major technology companies have worked with factories where conditions are troubling. However, independent monitors and suppliers say some act differently. Executives at multiple suppliers, in interviews, said that Hewlett-Packard and others allowed them slightly more profits and other allowances if they were used to improve worker conditions."
Though I figured most consumers were unaware of Foxconn and their relationship with Apple, I found the actual percentages rather shocking. 
"Apple is one of the most admired brands. In a national survey conducted by The New York Times in November, 56 percent of respondents said they couldn’t think of anything negative about Apple. Fourteen percent said the worst thing about the company was that its products were too expensive. Just 2 percent mentioned overseas labor practices."
All of this got me pondering...

- If so much of our stuff is inevitably going to be produced in foreign countries by low wage earners, I guess I'd still rather support the lesser of those evils. Is there a way for regular ass consumers like me to know which companies are tied to less exploitative labor practices?

- Shaming consumers for purchasing sweatshop-produced goods makes about as much sense as blaming car owners for air pollution. Yes, all of our individual choices add up to one giant problem. But in both circumstances, corporations are at least as culpable and it's imperative that we don't lose sight of that.

- How do individuals influence corporations and government to promote reform? I don't fucking know. But I have to believe that if even ten percent of consumers were to associate the Apple brand with unfair labor practices, that particular corporation would be far more likely to address labor issues in a meaningful way. Since that article's publication, Apple has hired monitors to inspect Foxconn's facility in China, where employee wages have increased up to 25%. Again, it's important to remember that Foxconn responds to Apple's demands. Getting the middle man to initiate reform strikes me as an insufficient short-term solution, but I suppose it's a start.

More than ever, I believe that knowing the ugly truth is better than not knowing. So please read the NYT article. Here's that link again. If you read it on your iWhatever, it might make you feel weird and that's okay. It's also fine if you don't have any moral qualms. I'm not going to tell you to feel bad. But I'm not going to say that you shouldn't, either. I still feel icky abut this thing.

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