Friday, February 24, 2012

Outrage is Good. Regulation is Better.

Yesterday's Salon carried an excellent, if depressing, piece by Andrew Leonard, titled "There is no ethical smartphone".

Leonard picks up from a blogpost by self-described "phone geek" John Wood (full post, here). Wood, who wants to upgrade his current phone, notes the problems with current smartphone manufacture:

The increasing complexity of the devices has meant a growth in outsourcing manufacturing of components. Major chunks of the phone are being produced now by companies at arms length [sic] of the company whose name’s on the front of the device, and at arms length [sic] of their own codes of conduct on workers’ rights. This is even more the case with brands like Apple, who are outsourcing pretty much the entire process.

Take Taiwan’s Young Fast Optoelectonics for example. They’ve made LCD touchscreens now for many of the major handset brands – including HTC, Samsung and LG. They also have outstanding allegations of forced overtime, unsafe working, child labour and union busting. Or Foxconn, where a wave of suicides amongst workers producing components for the iPhone in giant factory dormitories has highlighted widespread abuses of workers’ rights.....

The materials used in the manufacture of the phones are also causing widespread suffering. The mineral coltan (columbite-tantalite) is pretty much essential to smartphones, due to its properties in holding an electrical charge. However most of the coltan around comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where as with blood diamonds, a blood mineral trade fiercely fought over by gangster warlords is extending conflict and causing misery for workers and civilians.

Other materials are directly hazardous to people working to bring us our smartphones. iPhone outsourced supplier WinTek use harsh chemicals in cleaning screens, skimping on protection for the workers involved. Hospitals have reported long term debilitation in many workers they’ve treated.

What to do? Wood (and Leonard) could try living without smartphones (or computers, or flat-screen TVs, or most other electronics). Wood did a lot of research into the policies of various manufacturers, finally deciding on a Samsung Galaxy Note, in part because the company seemed to be "not as evil as they have been" (full post, here).

It didn't take long for commenters to reach Wood about current questionable Samsung practices.

Leonard doesn't make any shopping suggestions, but he does see a reason to be optimistic: "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!"

How's that?

Leonard points out that, thanks to smartphones, people who are assembling the phones (or providing some materials) under horrific conditions, have the power to transmit photographs or text messages about those conditions to the world at large. Getting consumers to think about these issues is certainly a starting point; I've written before (e.g., here and here) about our responsibility as consumers to think about more than just getting the "best" deal, where "best" means nothing more than "lowest price". There are a number of organizations tracking fair labor issues, like the Fair Labor Association (website, here) and Make IT Fair ("IT" stands for "information technology"; website, here).

There's no question that social media can be a powerful force for change (e.g., $3 million raised for Planned Parenthood in three days, and a stupid move by the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Foundation thwarted).

But I think that Leonard doesn't go nearly far enough.

Because without strong regulation, there's nothing to keep those companies from backsliding as soon as consumers' attention moves on to something else. And there's a big incentive (profits!) to backslide.

The reason we remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire victims, 101 years ago in March (blogpost, here), is not just because of the horrors of the event. We remember it because the deaths of nearly 150 mostly young, mostly immigrant, mostly women, victims were largely preventable (there was no audible alarm on the affected floors; doors had been locked to prevent employee thefts and unauthorized cigarette breaks; fire department ladders were not long enough to reach the affected floors; etc.). We remember it because of the public outcry that followed.

And mostly, we remember it because it led to significant toughening of labor laws.

Outrage is fine, and important. But it needs teeth. The only way to ensure that materials are ethically sourced, and that employees are ethically treated, is to regulate those behaviors. Otherwise, no matter how much the industry promises to police itself, somebody's going to fall for the lure of higher profits. And, though it depresses me to say so, we shouldn't expect them not to.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Made in Detroit, Ohio?!?

Yeesh. Sometimes these posts really write themselves.

Thanks to the website, The Atlantic Wire, I got introduced to a Detroit Free Press story that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Reporter Susan Tompor uncovered a sad little truth:

"Made in Detroit" T-shirts aren't, in fact, made in Detroit.

In her article, she writes about how she can get choked up hearing hometown boy Kid Rock sing that "I heard them say they're shuttin' Detroit down. But I won't leave cuz this is my hometown."

Kid Rock did indeed buy the "Made in Detroit" brand after it slid into bankruptcy in 2005. The brand's website refers to itself as "the singular symbol for a city that's not about to quit." (Inside the T-shirts, you'll find a logo plus this phrase: "Tough times don't last; tough people do.")

But where are the shirts made? Tompor went shopping, and found shirts made in the Dominican Republic, India, Honduras, and ... Ohio. Some shirts had had tags removed.

Is making "Made in Detroit" shirts in India illegal? No (although removing the tags might bring you unwanted FTC attention). But for a shirt that speaks to regional pride to be made elsewhere -- even elsewhere in the US -- isn't the best ethical move. I suspect that the buyers would wear their shirts with even more pride if they knew that it was indeed Made in Detroit.

Tompor quotes the brand's operations manager as saying that "it would cost more for Made in U.S.A. shirts but ... the company is working toward using more U.S.A.-made shirts." She hopes that works out.

And so do I.