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.