Citzen Consumer

Published on February 5, 2013   ·   No Comments

Consumer campaigns have more effectively influenced manufacturing than has government regulation.

Dara O’Rourke

This article is part of Citizen Consumer, a forum on using ethical consumption for social change

Alex Camlin

June 29, 2007 I waited in line for hours—something I hadn’t done since college rock-concert days—for the privilege of purchasing a first-generation iPhone. From the increasingly frenzied media coverage, I knew everything about the phone’s specs: its processor, memory, screen size, camera resolution, software. But I knew virtually nothing about the story behind the phone. I didn’t know where it was made, by whom, or with what effects on the environment, workers, communities, even my health.

My ignorance began to change as Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) launched campaigns highlighting Apple’s use of toxic chemicals and the iPhone’s contribution to the growing problem of “e-waste.” By August 2009 reports started to surface in China about worker illnesses at a factory owned by Wintek, one of the contractors producing iPod and iPhone screens. In January 2010 Wintek employees went on strike over poor conditions, exposure to toxic chemicals, and resulting illnesses. Later that spring Chinese newspapers reported a spate of worker suicides at the Shenzhen factory of one of the main suppliers for iPhones, Foxconn.

Apple, revered as one of the world’s most innovative consumer-products companies, almost overnight became a symbol of worker exploitation. Apple’s core customers, usually unwavering in their loyalty, debated the scandals on blogs such as Apple Insider and Mac Rumors. After the Foxconn suicides, the technology critic Joel Johnson concluded in Wired:

I can no longer look at the material world as a collection of objects but instead see interfaces, histories, and materials. . . . When 17 people take their lives, I ask myself, did I in my desire hurt them? Even just a little? And of course the answer, inevitable and immeasurable as the fluttering silence of our sun, is yes.

Apple was forced to respond to these concerns. In June 2010

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