The ethics of purchasing smartphones and laptops: part II

A few weeks ago I wrote a lengthy piece about something which had been bothering me for quite some time – the annoying lack of clear, easily-available information to help consumers buy technology in a more ethical manner (i.e. to choose products which don’t support unethical business practices such as using child labour, forced and unpaid overtime, polluting local environments and so on).

Well, I’ve since decided that this is an issue well worth covering on a regular basis simply because it is only by raising awareness that we create demand for ethically produced products – and influencing demand for products (i.e. $$) is pretty much the quickest way to induce changes in business practice whatever the industry sector.

As of a couple of weeks ago for example, Apple is now offering monthly updates to its Supplier Responsibility website to go along with a full list of companies from which it directly sources components and services. A step in the right direction for sure, but this only marks the beginning of getting a much greater level of transparency and information into the whole supply chain – not just one link ‘down’ from Apple – but all the way to the raw materials extraction with which the lengthy supply chain often begins. So while that is the ultimate goal, we should welcome each small positive development – but also scrutinise it for substance (as opposed to PR hot air) and continue to press for this incremental progress towards a 100% transparent and ethical supply chain.

In this follow-up to my first piece, I’d like to provide an example of exactly why I believe this is a goal worth striving for – but first a little caveat on why Apple seems (perhaps unfairly) to be the focal point for this sort of campaigning, when it as a company actually treats its employees and customers pretty well and has some very positive policies on managing its immediate environmental impact. There are two reasons why we should nonetheless continue to apply pressure on Apple (but crucially, not only Apple):

1. Apple is so, so powerful. Along with some energy companies (oil, gas etc) Apple is the biggest and richest company in the world. It has greater cash reserves than most world governments, the highest total worth (on and off depending on slight fluctuations of share price) and commands a staggering level of media attention – in which it is completely singular even when compared with other large companies, even in the tech sector – though admittedly this sector on the whole does get above-average coverage generally, at least here in the UK (tech can sometimes be a bit sci-fi – and that can capture the imagination). So, the bottom line is that Apple arguably has more financial and media influence than almost any other company in the world.

2. It is rare in today’s world for a company with such power to be so directly accessible to the consumer (i.e. completely at the ‘consumer-end’ of the supply chain). This means that it is more visible to consumers than companies further down the supply chain – and also the one which must be most attentive to changes in their needs and desires in order to continue to succeed. Companies further down the supply chain need only concern themselves with their immediate clients’ changing needs and wishes. In order to succeed, everyone must respond to what the ‘client’ (i.e. the one who is at one step up the supply chain) wants – and for Apple, this person is you.

So that’s it basically, Apple is both extremely powerful as a company (winning supply contracts with them is obviously very lucrative) – and, also, highly responsive to consumers’ needs and wishes (because in satisfying this, they make $billions). So while Apple does not directly employ any child labourers, they are still in a unique position to act in such a way that this practice can be eradicated from the entire supply chain, which also means it’d be eradicated from the supply chain of many other products also. That, in short, is why I keep banging on about Apple.

Now however, I’d like to turn your attention to a very different company in many ways – although one that is also seriously economically significant. It is a company, called Glencore, that most people won’t already know unless they follow business news. And yet last year Glencore became the biggest ever float on the London Stock Exchange (total worth $36bn) – not surprising when you consider that it trades 10% of the world’s wheat, 25% of its barley – and a staggering 50% of the total copper that comes to the global market. It is also based in Switzerland and Jersey (which should give you an idea of its attitudes towards paying taxes) and was originally founded in the 1970’s by a man who fled to Switzerland to avoid facing tax evasion, fraud, and racketeering charges in the US.

So, odds are that since Glencore trades half of the total copper produced in the world, it’s likely to have traded some of the copper in your phone wires, household plumbing, and roofing – as well as in making alloys that go into a wide range of other everyday objects (coins, musical instruments etc). Glencore also owns Zinc, Aluminium, Lead, and Cobalt operations all around the world which are very likely to be part of the supply chain for some of the everyday items you own – including tech gadgets (Cobalt for example is very useful in making batteries).

This is why a recent BBC Panorama investigation into the ethics of Glencore operations (watch it on iPlayer before it is taken down) around the world is causing such controversy – and also why it illustrates the current excessive complexity and lack of regulation in product supply chains – that ultimately benefits those seeking to profit from practices that they can only get away with if hidden from view. Journalist John Sweeney spoke to Glencore boss, Ivan Glasenberg, in order to discuss with him some of the evidence he had gathered which showed Glencore’s involvement with murderous paramilitaries in Colombia (where it owns and runs several coal-mining operations subsidiaries) and with child-labour using copper mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (an ironically cruel name for a country which is anything but democratic).

In both instances Glencore boss, Ivan Glasenberg, flatly denies that the company had any involvement or jurisdiction whatsoever over the operations in question. It is only after being presented with the evidence gathered by Sweeney, that he then performs a U-turn and attempts to justify that there was nothing the company could do to address these problems sooner (as with the case of acid pollution from copper extraction operations in the DRC for example). So that is the first of two important conclusions from the report – that the corporate spokespeople for these companies are not above presenting an absolute outright falsehood for the public, which will only be retracted in the face of convincing evidence.

The second conclusion relates exactly to the main issue of ethical practice in complex product supply chains. Basically, Sweeney was only able to discover the highly unethical business practices engaged in by Glencore subsidiaries by acquainting himself with all the local partners of Glencore and by secretly following the copper from its source in the mine (where it is extracted by children as young as 10 years old) through various extracting and refinement plants and to the point at which it is exported (to yet another Glencore subsidiary). Some of this detective work involved secretly following the aforementioned copper load for 26 hours straight on a pot-holed dirt road across this war-ravaged country.

This is not something we are likely to have time for every time we need to buy a new smart-phone, calculator, or even copper pipe. As I keep saying – being an ethical tech consumer shouldn’t be this hard! One way to make things simpler, would be for us as consumers to exert a domino effect of pressure along the supply chain (in the direction that money flows through it – not goods). Apple’s information about its suppliers is a step in the right direction towards achieving this aim but ultimately this is a task that will require the efforts of numerous powerful companies, loud and clear signals from consumers, an effective and independent regulatory effort and a whole host of NGO, academic, and industry organisations. The first step however, is simply signalling that this is something that we demand and expect as consumers – and thereby make it into something that carries a potential financial reward for companies.

The next post in this series will feature an overview of easy steps which can be taken to continue building the pressure on companies to eradicate these practices from their entire supply chains.

About Dejan Levi |

Dejan Levi has a B.A. in English Language and Literature from The University of Liverpool. Dejan is a community-minded professional with a passion for blogging and social media. He has been writing for Eton Digital since 2007.

One comment on The ethics of purchasing smartphones and laptops: part II

  • UPDATE:

    A further note on the reasons why debates around this issue centre mainly on Apple, despite the fact that the company is far from being the only one relevant to the debate.

    In an interesting development last week, Foxconn workers who are unhappy with the ‘resolution’ of a current dispute over conditions have threatened suicide if the discussion is not re-opened (Foxconn bosses recently declared the matter closed). What happened next? Western media (whose readers represent a majority of Apple’s customers) took notice:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/27/apple-contractor-workers-threaten-suicide

    Now, I’m not here endorsing the suicide threat as a legitimate bargaining technique (I’m not condemning it either – I’m not really in a position to judge). The reason I bring this up is to highlight the huge degree of media attention commanded by Apple – and consequently, since 2010 anyway, also by Foxconn.

    Hence the suicide threat is significant for the reason that it indicates precisely that Foxconn workers are aware of this press attention – and are using it as an empowering tool to re-negotiate their conditions and rights.

    If media attention can therefore be appropriated in such a way by Foxconn workers, why not also by others whose quality of life is directly affected by the nature of business practice in the tech (and related) sectors?