For me, this week has been one of technological disasters. On Friday, I was having a great writing day, and so I decided to stay home from my usual end-of-week festivities in order to keep writing. Of course, around 10PM my computer crashed. When I first tried to restart it, it would turn on but would not POST. Then, it just stopped turning on altogether. “Fine,” I thought, “this is not too much of a hassle. I have an external hard drive that automatically backs up at 5PM every day. At most I might lose five hours of work.” Furthermore, my partner is very good with computers, and can usually restore lost files if there is even the remotest chance the file can be recovered. My very kind and patient partner spent Saturday fixing my computer.
Before the files were transferred from external drive to computer, however, the external drive broke. My patient partner is still working on fixing the external drive. On Tuesday my computer crashed again. Although it will now POST, it won’t stay on for more than an hour. Today my laptop (yes, I have way too many electronics) began to get testy so that every two hours it decides it will no longer recognize any of its pointing devices (USB mouse, touch pad, scroll bar, etc.). For now the laptop issue seems to be fixed by a reboot, but it still rather annoying and interrupts the workflow.
My patient partner has decided to give another look into fixing the desktop computer before we make any purchases of new equipment and my partner will also probably end up looking at the laptop, too. My mind, however, is already turning to the possibility of buying something new, or at least some new parts. I am much less patient with malfunctioning technology than is my partner.
I don’t want what I buy to support unfair labour practices suffered by someone else, however. Today as I was contemplating buying a new computer, I noticed this post at The Border House Blog and 1UP about a new Report from the National Labor Committee regarding the use of underage sweat-shop labour in the manufacture of a number of electronic goods. The list of companies that source from the particular factory that is the subject of this report is fairly comprehensive. It seems very difficult to entirely avoid products that source from this factory.
When I have discussed this issue with friends, I have had one of two responses, both of which seem inadequate to me. The first is from friends who use a Mac, and they tell me they are buying products that are “mostly harmless” and I should, too. The second, blames the companies for their bad behaviour in contracting with sweatshops. The reason each of these responses seems inadequate to me is that they ignore the way we are collectively involved in these practices and instead the responses pass the responsibility on to someone else.
1. Just Buy a Mac
Let me begin with the first response: those who use a Mac offer as a solution to my problem that I should buy a Mac. I support responsibly spending one’s money. I think it is better to buy products that are manufactured in ways that are environmentally and socially responsible. But I do not think that individual consumer choice alone is an adequate response to issues like these that are deeply entwined with the structures of global economies. First, individual consumer action is one that is available to only those with the means to make these choices. Apple products are expensive. They are not products that are within the price-range of many potential purchases. Their cost is part of their cache as a status signalling product, which was discussed eloquently here I am by no means poor, but because I am a student, I am currently living without an income. When I did have an income I saved a portion of it to support this period of my education when I would be without. So I have means of supporting myself, but I am very careful about how much I spend. So I am acutely aware that “buy a Mac,” is not a panacea for this particular consumer problem. I would rather replace problem parts of my computer than replace the whole thing (which, by the way is also more environmentally responsible).
Given our current set of economic incentives, companies that engage in socially responsible business practices must also engage in PR to promote these practices, otherwise production costs rise without corresponding demand rises from responsible purchasers. This means that usually products that are responsibly produced are more expensive. So again, those who are more affluent are better able to make “responsible” purchases than those with fewer means. The beauty of democracy is the ideal (though one not often realized in practice) is of one person one vote, often constrained by considerations of individual and group rights (e.g. as expressed in constitutions, charters, and declarations or bills of rights). This puts people on an equal footing, to some extent. Capitalism, however, involves one dollar one vote, and since dollars are highly unequally distributed, people are also very unequally situated to make their desires known through what they purchase. As usual, those whose voices are disadvantaged by this system also face many other barriers to making their voices heard.
Buying a Mac really does nothing at all to help the workers in the factory highlighted in the study (the factory has so far not been tied to Apple). If I buy a Mac I have exercised my privilege to make a purchasing decision that reflects my values, but I have done nothing at all to find out how the exploited workers would have things change or what could be done to make their lives better. In fact, it can sometimes make things worse for these workers (Chris MacDonald has made a similar point about Fairtrade here). I have done nothing to empower them or help them have their voices heard, I have merely expressed my own values through my purchasing decisions. But the decisions leave the power structures in place so that some voices remain more capable of swaying market practices (including labour market practices) than others.
A second problem with using one’s purchasing power to express one’s values is that it is just so hard to do. In ideal market theory, consumers are supposed to have “perfect information” and make decisions based on this information, combined with their desire to pursue price-value as constrained by their preferences and moral-values. But in practice, we do not have anything like “perfect information” and often lack even minimally adequate information. Indeed, many laws protecting the intellectual property of companies also prevents people from obtaining information that they might find relevant to their purchasing preferences. Considering the vast number of suppliers that provide parts for the products we purchase, it is beyond the means of most people to fully investigate how they will spend their money. For example, I contacted the National Labor Committee to ask if there was anything like a “Union Label” or “Fairtrade” label for electronics, or to indicate that just labour practices are followed in general. They responded:
We have discussed variations of this idea over the years, but we’re too small to carry out the extensive research that such a label would require. Also, with so many companies sourcing from so many different places, you can imagine what kind of disaster this could lead to if a part of a “labor justice” product is subcontracted from a good factory to a bad factory somewhere else.
Let me be clear: I do think there is a point to responsible purchasing. But I do not think responsible purchasing alone is a solution. We also need trade laws, business laws, international laws and so forth that go much further toward protecting workers, empowering workers, and forcing labour practice transparency. It is a systematic problem, and merely buying a Mac does not address the systematic nature of this problem.
I do think that Apple has taken important steps since the 2006 allegations they were using sweatshop labour. Apple’s policy is fairly detailed and involves a commitment to empower workers so that they are aware of their own rights. Clearly this is more involved that Microsoft’s policy which is expressed on their website in only a few lines and seems to rely mainly on audits rather than worker empowerment. It is great that Apple is doing these things, but we should also ensure that other companies at minimum follow the same standards, and we should make it easier for them to do so by ensuring that all are required to follow stringent labour standards so that it is not a competitive disadvantage to do so.
2. Companies Are Selfish and Profit-Driven Psychopaths
I am going to come back to this issue soon to add some thoughts about this response. 1UP is circulating a petition here.