An American Editor

July 16, 2010

Ethics in a World of Cheap

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — Rich Adin @ 8:04 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In response to my article earlier this week, Striking Workers and American Editors, one commenter raised the question of the ethics of buying iPads and iPods when we know that the devices are manufactured in far from ideal working conditions — essentially under slave labor conditions — and specifically asked for my views.

Although the article noted the labor problems in Foxconn’s Chinese factories, the factories where Apple’s iPads, among other devices, are manufactured, the problem is much more widespread. And there is no easy finger of shame to point. But to address the commenter’s request, it is necessary to backtrack a bit and ask the fundamental questions: What is moral? What is ethical?

These are questions with no easy answers. Is it more moral/ethical to give a donation to your local church’s building fund or to the local foodbank’s food-buying program? Is it more moral/ethical to cut school aid or defense spending? Is it more moral/ethical to impose a higher sales tax that disproportionately affects the poor or to raise taxes on estate transfers valued at more than $5 million? Is it more moral/ethical to abort a fetus or to bring into the world a child who it is expected will be abused? Any one of these and myriad other such dilemmas can keep us occupied debating morals and ethics for centuries to come.

The Foxconn-type situation is being played out daily here in the United States and elsewhere. We deplore the conditions under which people have to work yet simultaneously want lower prices for the commodities we want to purchase. The question as posed by the commenter really is nearly impossible to answer because even if we were to agree on what is moral/ethical, that agreement would soon fall apart as we tried to apply it to an actual commodity — because we all value commodities differently. I see no value in an iPhone, but clearly millions of users do.

It is easy for me to say that the ethical consumer would shun every Apple product because Apple is an immoral, unethical company. Why is it so easy for me to say and do? Because I happen to think Apple is an unethical company and so I don’t buy any Apple products. But the kicker to that is position is that I have no need for any Apple product. But suppose tomorrow a major client came to me and told me that I had to either buy an Apple computer or lose all their business and that I had no way to readily make up that lost income, which would lead to a cascade of misfortune for my family. Perhaps ethics is a rich person’s luxury and not a poor man’s possibility.

The situation is similar with books. As a matter of principle, I do not buy books from Amazon. I consider Amazon to be the Apple of the publishing world. Amazon is constantly putting pressure on book prices, which is good for the book buyer but is bad for those of us in the book publishing food chain. If a publisher charges less for a book because of Amazon’s pressure, the publisher will strive to make up that “loss” by squeezing the supply chain — the Wal-Mart approach — which means less money for editors and other publishing suppliers. Editors have been seeing this trend in the United States for years with the offshoring of skilled, professional editorial work. Yet, although I and many of my colleagues recognize this problem, if you ask a book-buying editor where they buy their books, the answer is likely to be Amazon; after all, they would say, “How smart is it to pay $25 to your local indie bookstore when you can buy the same book for $10 at Amazon?” No thought is given to the entics or the morality of the purchase because ethics and morality are for someone else’s purchase, not theirs.

This is the problem with the question asked: Essentially, it is impossible to answer because the angle of approach is so skewed. I think people shouldn’t buy Apple products for lots of reasons and the Foxconn situation is simply one among many reasons. But I no sooner say that than I realize that for a product I do want or need, I price shop and so I create a Foxconn-Apple-type moral/ethical dilemma, just in another place.

In the ideal world, every product would be fairly valued, every service would be fairly valued, every person would be highly valued — but that’s in the ideal world. All I can do is strike a small blow for what I think is right based on my needs and values; I cannot honestly condemn the iPad buyer for encouraging the Foxconn labor situation without condemning myself for the BP oil spill as a gasoline buyer and for the poor working conditions on farms for migrant laborers? (Shouldn’t I bicycle only? But what about the low-wage factory worker who built the low-priced bicycle, which is all I can afford to buy because of the low pay I receive from publishers to edit books that Amazon insists not have a retail price higher than $10 because consumers now expect that as the top price?  Shouldn’t I be willing to buy strawberries at 3 times the current price to assure farmers a good return in hopes the farmer would better the laborer’s working conditions and pay?)

I have yet to meet a moral/ethical question that is either laser focused or capable of being addressed in a laser-like fashion. Simplifying either the complex moral/ethical dilemma or the complex response/solution to a 5-second media byte does a disservice to everyone and does nothing to address the underlying causes and dilemmas. Until consumers are willing to give up cheap, until corporations are willing to accept smaller profit margins, until politicians are willing to forsake graft, until churches and their members are willing to practice what they preach, I’m not certain that I — or anyone — can adequately respond to the commenter’s concerns about the ethics of buying an iPad or an iPod or any Apple product based on the Foxconn cesspool alone. What we really need and should be addressing is a wholesale makeover of our approach to material things and how we prioritize our values. Only then, perhaps, can we truly apply a laser-like focus on the Foxconn-Apple-type moral/ethical conflicts and arrive at a universally supportable and implementable resolution.

In the mean time, I will continue to avoid buying Apple products, Foxconn simply being one more good reason to do so.



  1. Wow, if this isn’t a description of The World As It Is Now, I don’t know what is. It also serves as a good explanation of why it makes no sense to cling to your favorite political party. None of us really has a handle on how the world works anymore or the total effect your actions have on others. I don’t think that was the case when we were truly tribal, but now that we’ve gone all global it’s the order of the day.

    I doubt very much we can make any major life changes that will ensure none of our actions contribute to the world’s ills. However, we can remain as vigilant as possible and support companies that do make an effort to be green or non-expoitive. But in the end, do you really know where your stuff is coming from or what evil the company you are supporting is perpetrating? They all have green policies. They all subscribe to fair practice. They’re all so politically correct, I’m choking on warm fuzzies. But some are more equal than others. Do you have the time and resources to check their facts?

    I know I don’t. The best I can do is consume as little as possible. I think I do well. I choose as best I can. But still at the end of the day, I’m left with fifteen years of my life developing an efficient, money-saving, time-saving, earth-saving career that can only work via Applescript. Attending your Apple boycott will cost a lot more than if I dump the whole thing and burn carbons developing a new workflow. Some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t. God grant me the wisdom. You know the drill.


    Comment by Sue Lange — July 16, 2010 @ 8:59 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Rich. Our moral choices are indeed affected by our personal situations. The best that we can do is think through our actions before we take them. It’s easy for me to say that people should boycott Apple until it stops farming out work at slave wages … because I’ve never had any need to use Apple products. But then there’s my HP inkjet printer, which I purchased long before I was aware that HP also uses Foxconn for the manufacture of some of its products–and my Dell PC, sold by a corporation that uses Foxconn’s services too.


    Comment by Katharine — July 16, 2010 @ 9:14 am | Reply

    • To further complicate matters, take a look at this chart of the gulf in auto wages worldwide from Bloomberg’s Business Week: As this shows (and don’t forget there was also a strike at a Honda plant in China over wages), if parity were the goal, we couldn’t buy an automobile or probably anything else made or grown in a developing country. Of course, the one thing not discussed in my article is what constitutes an acceptable living wage. There are few people who would think that a UAW worker here in the U.S. who earns $33 an hour is not making a decent wage, yet when compared with Germany, the worker is being abused. Relativity applies to more than space and time.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 16, 2010 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jose Afonso Furtado and John Dupuis, said: RT @jafurtado: Ethics in a World of Cheap, by Rich Adin | An American Editor […]


    Pingback by Tweets that mention Ethics in a World of Cheap « An American Editor -- — July 16, 2010 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  4. I’ve begun to buy more books from my local independent (University Book Store, Seattle), even though it costs me more than buying from Amazon. But yes, it’s because I can afford to do so. I recently bought two books for my cousin’s kids, and paid $10 more than I would have if I’d used Amazon. I could afford the extra $10. Many others, I imagine, couldn’t. (Then again, are they buying books from anyone?)


    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff — July 16, 2010 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  5. The Kindle is also manufactured by Foxconn, as are some HP and Dell components, Playstation, Wii, XBOX 360, and Motorola and Nokia mobile phones. At the same time, we have no idea whether the conditions at other factories producing similar products are just as bad if not worse. If this is a concern to you, the idea of buying hardback or paperback books may sound like an attractive alternative. However, if you live anywhere on the Pacific Rim, it is possible that the books you buy were printed and bound in factories very near Foxconn’s in Shenzhen, and there is no way to know what the working conditions are in those places. Certainly, all of the major publishers use Shenzhen printers for the books they sell in Asia.
    This is an intractable problem with no easy answers. The odds of any kind of boycott succeeding are slim, because these same companies are looking at the bottom line and sometimes shrinking profit margins. Perhaps a more fruitful avenue would be through direct pressure on Foxconn and other manufacturers to clean up their acts, and laws making US companies responsible for the working conditions at the overseas factories which provide their goods.


    Comment by Patrick — July 22, 2010 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

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