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Which is least unethical—buying a Mac, or buying a PC?

Recent news stories have brought to public attention the fact that many Apple products, including iPhones, iPads, and Macs, are produced in part in factories with a record of using child labour, failing to provide safe work conditions, and requiring employees to work long shifts for low wages (see, for example, here, here, here and here). This raises the question: should we all stop buying these products?

Suppose you need a new laptop, or at least, are going to buy one. Leaving aside ethical considerations, you are indifferent between getting a Mac and buying a PC laptop from one of Apple’s competitors. Which should you buy?

To answer this, we need to say something more about the situation at factories run by Apple’s Chinese suppliers. Much of the attention has focused on Foxconn, which assembles the iPad and iPhone. It’s alleged that Foxconn negligence was responsible for a blast which killed two people and injured more than a dozen; that it exposes workers to toxic chemicals without adequate protection; that it requires illegal levels of overtime (often more than double the legal limit of 36 hours per month) for which it frequently does not pay in full; that it deceives potential recruits regarding pay rates; that workers are humiliated by supervisors; that workers often have to stand almost uninterrupted for a 12 hour shift; and that poor work conditions contributed to a spate of suicides at the company’s Shenzen plant in 2010. In addition, Mike Daisey, a New York performer who visited the Foxconn plant in Shenzen, reports that he met children in the age range 12-14 who were working in the plant. They told him that it was not difficult for children of their age to find employment there.

There have also been problems at other Apple suppliers. For example, Catcher Technology, which makes the aluminium casings for many Apple products, was recently instructed to shut down one of its factories by the Chinese government after neighbouring residents complaint of unbearable fumes from the factory.

Apple has taken some steps to improve the situation in response to recent public pressure. For example, it stepped up its own supplier-audit programme, commissioned the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct an outside audit, and apparently induced Foxconn to raise the wages of its workers. However, questions have already been raised about the objectivity of the FLA, the scope of the wage increases, and the willingness of Apple to rectify the problems that its own audits have uncovered (see this, which is a response to this). The steps being taken by Apple may be little more than cosmetic.

I take it to be obvious that Apple suppliers are behaving unethically, and that the suppliers, and Apple itself, should do much more to improve the situation. But how does this bear on consumers? Does it follow that no-one should buy an iPhone, iPad or Mac?

There are two main reasons why it might be unethical to buy from a company like Apple. First, in purchasing Apple products, one encourages Apple to sustain its current practices. The greater the ‘reward’ that Apple receives, in terms of profits, the more likely it is to continue doing what it is doing. Of course, an individual consumer may not significantly affect the sizes of Apple’s profits and thus may not alone influence the perpetuation of current practices. But when one buys a Mac or an iPad, one is part of a collective that, as a whole helps to sustain these practices, and arguably that gives one reason not to make the purchase.

Second, it might be thought that, even leaving aside the effects on our choices on future practices, buying from a company like Apple is problematic. If I buy an Apple product, I benefit from the mistreatment of Chinese workers. Perhaps I also implicitly endorse what they are doing. Arguably these connections are enough to make me complicit in Apple’s wrongdoing. If I buy from them, perhaps I become an accomplice to their mistreatment of workers.

The problem is that Apple’s competitors may have similar problems in their supply chains. Indeed, many of Apple’s major competitors use precisely the same suppliers. Foxconn supplies Samsung, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, as well as Apple. Most of the recent attention on unethical practices in the Chinese electronics industry has focused on Apple, rather than its competitors. But Apple may be the main target largely because, given its size and high profit margins, it’s perceived to be in the best position to improve labour standards, not because it’s own standards are the worst. Ethical Consumer Magazine ranks Apple to be mid-table in terms of the ethics of its laptop and phone manufacturing processes, and above some of its biggest competitors, such as Samsung, Sony, HP and Toshiba. Moreover, though Apple is not doing enough to improve the situation, it arguably is doing more than most of its competitors. For example, it arguably does conduct more rigorous audits of its suppliers.

Perhaps, then, buying from Apple is less problematic than buying from many other electronics companies. The practices that one helps to sustain, or becomes complicit in, when one buys from Apple may be less objectionable than the practices one sustains, or becomes complicit in, when one buys from, say, Sony. Moreover, in buying from Apple one may help to encourage other firms to move to some less bad Apple-like model.

On the other hand, Apple probably is in a much stronger position than other electronics companies to improve the situation, given its market power and profit margins. Moreover, it is currently under public pressure to improve the situation and is clearly feeling this pressure. And its emphasis on producing ‘feel-good’ products and claims to ‘do things differently’ only intensifies this pressure. These factors suggest that—at least at the moment—Apple may be more sensitive than others to ethically-motivated consumer decisions. If sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs were to fall dramatically due to consumer concerns about factory conditions, Apple surely could and would improve the situation. Of course, no individual consumer can bring about this change alone, but she can contribute in a small way by taking her business elsewhere.

Thus, two factors seem to militate in opposing directions. A concern to buy from the least unethical manufacturers might in fact slightly count somewhat in favour of buying from Apple rather than from some of its main competitors. On the other hand, a concern to send a message where it is most likely to be heard (and to make a difference) seems to count in favour of not buying from Apple.

I am not sure how these factors balance out in this particular case. I suppose I’m inclined to think that, other things being equal, not buying from Apple is the better thing to do, right now. (This assumes that one is going to buy from someone. Of course, not buying from anyone, might be better still.)

But I do want to end with a concrete and positive suggestion. If one buys any Chinese-manufactured electronics product in current circumstances, one is likely to be encouraging some unethical labour practices. I suggest that if one does this, one at least has reason to try to mitigate that effect. How might one do this? One option might be to donate to one of the Chinese charities currently pressuring Apple and others to improve condition in their suppliers’ factories (for example, China Labor Watch or China Labour Bulletin).

Many of those who have commented on blogs discussing Apple’s worker abuses have noted that they would be prepared to pay significantly more for electronics products if they were made ethically. At the moment, paying more for an ethical product is not an option. But what is an option is paying more to help mitigate one’s contribution to the perpetuation of unethical practices. Those who say they are willing to pay for ethical manufacturing should, I suggest, put their money where their mouth is.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. A very interesting piece, Tom; thanks for posting it.
    I actually wrote a lengthy piece about this at the end of February and concluded that there's really not much for consumers to do, even if they want to consume morally because the problems exist for virtually any device we might buy and because we can't simply disconnect from technology today.
    The piece is here, in case you or your readers are interested:

  2. I'm not so sure about this:

    <blockquote>Thus, two factors seem to militate in opposing directions. A concern to buy from the least unethical manufacturers might in fact slightly count somewhat in favour of buying from Apple rather than from some of its main competitors. On the other hand, a concern to send a message where it is most likely to be heard (and to make a difference) seems to count in favour of not buying from Apple.</blockquote>

    It seems to me that the very factor that militates in favour of buying from Apple rather than its competitors — i.e. it's high profitability making it the best placed manufacturer to make a difference — would prevent your second factor from being a serious consideration. If the company is so profitable, an individual consumer deciding to back out of a purchase or failing to purchase something that they might otherwise have purchased, is unlikely to be "heard" by Apple. There would need to be a well-organised, mass boycott. Wouldn't there?

  3. In addition to the two NGOs you mention, there is SACOM, the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, which was instrumental in the campaign exposing the ill-treatment of workers in factories producing Apple and Samsung and other brandname products.

  4. Do you think it makes a difference if the CEO of a particular company donates large amounts to effective charity, like Bill Gates? Maybe we have an ethical obligation to buy Microsoft?

  5. Thanks for the comments and links.

    John – an interesting point. My thinking was that, if Apple suffered a loss in profits of $x that it attributed to adverse publicity regarding working conditions, then it is likely to be motivated and able to correct those working conditions – motivated because its very public commitments to doing things differently, being progressive etc., and able because its high profit margins leave it considerable scope to take measures which raises its production costs. If another firm found itself in the same position, it might be both less motivated and less able to respond in the same way, not having made the same public commitments, and not having the same room to manouvre in terms of short term profit margins. As you point out, Apple’s high profits might also tend to make it generally less sensitive to small absolute changes in profits than other firms. You may be right, but I’m not sure about this. Perhaps it acquired such large profits in the first place by being exquisitely profit sensitive. If it’s true that Apple is generally less profit sensitive, that would tend to counter-act the considerations I mentioned, but of course it might not wholly offset them.

    Julian – yes, it seems to me that that could be relevant, as long as one thinks that wrongs perpetrated against Chinese works can be partially offset (morally) by providing benefits to others (as the Gate Foundation does). I assumed for the purpose of this post that these wrongs should be offset by taking steps to prevent more of the same wrongs in the future, but agree that that’s not obvious. Perhaps it’s worth noting also that, if one takes the view that wrongs perpetrated against workers can be offset by doing good elsewhere, then it might be best simply to buy the cheapest product, and donate the money saved to whatever charity one takes to do the most good per $1.

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