Is there such a thing as ‘ethical technology’?
by Alan Zisman (c) 2012
published in Columbia
Journal September 2012
Hard to believe, but as recently as 15 years ago, the adjective the
media most attached to Apple Computers was ‘beleaguered’. In 1996,
exiled founder Steve Jobs returned to the company, the following year
negotiating a cash infusion from archrival Microsoft to forestall
bankruptcy or purchase.
In the years that followed, Apple released a series of successful
products: consumer-focused personal computers like its iMac and MacBook
series, iPod music players, iPhone smartphones and iPad tablets along
with popular services like its iTunes Music Store. Now, it’s arguably
the most profitable company in the world, sitting on over $100 billion
At the same time, though, Apple has been increasingly criticized – has
its success come with environmental costs and have its profits been
gained through the exploitation of Third World (predominately Chinese)
Similar complaints could be raised against any company in the consumer
electronics and technology industries – Apple has not been singled out
by virtue of being the worst polluter or sweatshop operator in its
(Apple has also been criticized for its closed systems – gadgets that
make it hard to run apps from sources other than Apple’s closely
controlled App Store for instance. Another stream of recent criticism
of Apple has focused on its tendency to use the courts to discourage
competition with its products).
Apple has become the focus for criticisms of its environmental and
labour records for a number of reasons – the company aims its products
at well-educated artsy types, people who like to imagine they ‘think
different’ (in the words of an iconic series of Apple ads from the
People think of Apple as associated with liberal causes and values – US
right-wing radio host, Rush Limbaugh – who apparently prefers to use
Apple products – recently commented: “Apple wouldn’t let me in the door
if I went out there. We tried for years to get them as advertisers;
they wouldn’t talk to us…. Politically they have nothing in common with
As a result, critics tend to hold Apple to higher standards – expecting
the company to ‘walk the walk’. Would Think Different advertising
campaign subjects like Gandhi or John Lennon have approved of the
Its recent success has made Apple a standard-bearer for its industry.
Just as its competitors have arguably copied Apple’s smartphone and
tablet designs, if Apple leads in environmental or work conditions
standards, its competitors may feel pressured to respond in kind.
Finally, Apple has managed to be successful marketing its products as
higher-priced models; that gives it more flexibility to make changes to
its environmental or labour practices than competitors who are focusing
exclusively on selling products at the lowest-possible prices.
In response to criticisms from Greenpeace, among others, Apple has
minimized the use of toxic substances in its product line – the company
notes, for instance, that all of its displays use mercury-free
backlighting and arsenic-free glass. Apple has reduced the amount of
packaging and is making increased use of recycled plastics and paper
and vegetable-based inks, and notes that the energy needs of a number
of its newer facilities – in the US, Ireland, and Germany – are
entirely met by renewable energy sources. (See Apple’s webpage:
While Apple – and other tech companies – have been responsive to
criticisms from environmental activists, it isn’t all good news. Recent
Apple models such as MacBook laptops and iPhones and iPads have
included non-removable batteries and soldered on memory chips making
them harder to disassemble for recycling. These product designs allow
for larger batteries in slimmer cases, now models from many of Apple’s
competitors similarly feature non-removable parts – sleek design
Apple does little of its own manufacturing. Instead, along with most of
its competitors, much of its manufacturing takes place at factories in
China owned by companies like Foxconn Technology. There, workers have
complained about long hours and poor working conditions – including a
January 2012 protest when 150 workers went onto the roof and threatened
to commit suicide.
Foxconn, with hundreds of thousands of employees, produces an estimated
one-third of the world’s consumer electronic products. Employees in its
factories work an average of 83 hours of overtime a month despite
Chinese labour law setting a maximum of 36 hours.
(Some note that despite attention paid to suicide-attempts among
Foxconn employees, their suicide rate is lower than China’s national
average. And despite employee protests, Foxconn claims it continues to
get ten applicants for every job opening).
Apple publishes a code of conduct for its suppliers (including Foxconn)
and has asked the American Fair Labour Association to investigate and
publicly report on working conditions in the Foxconn factories.
Recently, wages were raised by 25% and overtime hours have been capped.
Foxconn’s long-term answer to criticisms of its labour practices,
however, may be two-fold: it is looking to move production from China
to even lower-wage countries - Foxconn’s parent company Hon Hai has
been building manufacturing capabilities in Vietnam. As well, it is
investing heavily in automation, removing the need for even low-wage
(Foxconn is not necessarily the worst sweatshop operator; it has become
the target of complaints because it is among the largest).
Moreover, technology and consumer electronics products are rarely
manufactured from start to finish at one place – an Apple laptop
computer can include a hard drive (often manufactured by a different
company in Thailand), a display (perhaps manufactured by Apple
competitor Samsung), memory chips and other parts sourced from a
variety of manufacturers.
It gets even harder to track back to where the original raw materials
come from. Microsoft has said, “we are working with our suppliers to
trace the source of all minerals used in our products that could
potentially come from conflict zones”. Noteworthy, though, is the
implication that right now Microsoft is unclear what is the source of
the raw materials used in its products.
It’s not currently possible to purchase an ethical computer,
smartphone, tablet, or other technology or consumer electronic product.
Nevertheless, pressure from environmental and labour activists has
resulting in some gains. Consumer boycotts of Apple will not result in
change, though, if the result is simply to purchase the product of one
of its competitors.
Instead, long-term change may only occur, as Greenpeace’s Tom Dowdall
suggests, will require “a change in business model towards
long-lasting, durable, upgradeable technology where the focus is on
selling the service, not on new devices.”