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Earth Technology Hardware

Can You Buy Tech With a Clean Conscience? 412

Posted by Soulskill
from the no-amoled-screens-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-post dept.
Barence writes "Is it even possible to buy technology with a clean conscience? With the vast majority of gadgets and components manufactured using low-paid labor in Asia, manufacturers unable to accurately plot their supply chains, and very few ethical codes of conduct, the article highlights the difficulty of trying to buy ethically-sound gadgets. It concludes, 'The answer would appear to be no. Too little information is available, and nobody we spoke to believed an entirely ethical technology company exists – at least, not among the household names.'"
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Can You Buy Tech With a Clean Conscience?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:24PM (#40121359)

    For example, if you care about preserving the right of the public to control their own computers, you're going to stay away from Apple and maybe from Android.

    If you care about working conditions of workers in factories, you'll stay away from some of the low end suppliers.

    If you care about privacy, you will stay away from Facebook.

    And so on. Just because there are problems everywhere does not make everything the same.

  • I'm fine with that (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:25PM (#40121365)

    I'm sure laborers in Asia prefer low wage over no wage.

  • Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dan East (318230) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:29PM (#40121409) Homepage Journal

    Tell me, what can you do with a clean conscience? Can you eat meat you buy from the store? Or even produce for that matter? Can you flip on the light switch in your home and consume electricity? Start your car? Wax philosophical all you want, but life is inherently unfair, whether within a species, or amongst species. Sure, many things can be improved, but you'll be afraid to take a step lest you kill an ant if you delve too deep here.

  • Re:Yes. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:43PM (#40121505)

    The summary's grasp on ethics seems a little shakey to me. Those low paid workers in Asia are damn glad to have the job, and what they do get paid goes a lot further than in the west. This is a process of enrichment, whereby poor countries in the far east get wealthier, develop a middle class, and start demanding democracy, resulting in not only a greatly enhanced standard of living but new markets for western countries as well as fresh innovations and freedom of choice.

    Capitalism. It works.

  • by couchslug (175151) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:46PM (#40121523)

    "I'm sure laborers in Asia prefer low wage over no wage."

    That's how the West built its industry and we'd do well to remember that.

    When goods cost too much to buy people can't afford to buy them so the people who make them can't SELL them and therefore can't CONTINUE making them.

    Almost all Asian industry is YOUNG (and I'm not talking from a Gary Glitter perspective!). China is advancing MUCH faster than did the US over the same amount of time.

  • Re:Yes. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dcnjoe60 (682885) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:48PM (#40121537)

    The summary's grasp on ethics seems a little shakey to me. Those low paid workers in Asia are damn glad to have the job, and what they do get paid goes a lot further than in the west. This is a process of enrichment, whereby poor countries in the far east get wealthier, develop a middle class, and start demanding democracy, resulting in not only a greatly enhanced standard of living but new markets for western countries as well as fresh innovations and freedom of choice.

    Capitalism. It works.

    Your argument is a bit like the slave owners who stated that their slaves were damn glad to have their job and get fed, too. Exploitation is exploitation, regardless if one can find some good to come from it or not.

  • by poity (465672) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:52PM (#40121565)

    When /. discusses labor and wage issues in the US (unions, living wage, income inequality), the common sentiment is that executives/owners/investors can afford to give up more of their profits to help ensure a more livable life for their workers.

    When /. discusses labor and wage issues in China (again, labor rights, wages, inequality), we rarely if ever touch on the above line of reasoning, and the common sentiment is that it's better for them to be paid meagerly than to be out of a job.

    There is a palpable moral double standard.

  • by the_B0fh (208483) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:55PM (#40121583) Homepage

    Who the fuck says the factory workers are low paid? The people who work on iPads get paid *MORE* than engineers and computer programmers, on par with pilots. HOW IS THAT LOW PAID?

    As for the other parts of your question, Apple seems to be the most ethical of them all, having invited audits of the factories and requirements that flow on down to subcontracting factories.

  • by arcite (661011) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @12:57PM (#40121597)
    You could buy from some no-name branded Chinese knock off assembled with second rate parts. Or you could purchase from Apple, a corporation that has made serious efforts toward improving the supply chain. The same is true for any product. There are companies out there who are indeed more ethical than others.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:01PM (#40121625)

    But we wouldn't all buy from it. Because it'd be more expensive.

  • by arcite (661011) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:01PM (#40121629)

    Can you eat meat from a store? I can buy locally produced organic meat. I can also eat meat two times a week, instead of every day.

    Produce? I can have a garden, or again, buy local.

    Flip on a light switch? I can buy energy efficient light bulbs that use a fraction of the electricity and last for decades.

    Electricity? I can install solar panels, or even buy more energy efficient appliances and electric monitors to lessen electric use.

    Start your car? This one is easy, I can use a bicycle, live closer to work, use public transport, car pooling, or even invest in a more sustainable form of transport

    Lesson? Everything can be improved.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:01PM (#40121631)

    ...is that you are not deciding for yourselves what's 'ethical'.

    You are simply taking directions from various activist organisations about what is 'ethical', and which companies meet that standard. And it is in the interests of those activist organisations to find 'unethical activity' - they would have no purpose if they didn't find some....

  • Re:Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

    by R.Mo_Robert (737913) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:04PM (#40121655)

    Tell me, what can you do with a clean conscience? Can you eat meat you buy from the store? Or even produce for that matter? Can you flip on the light switch in your home and consume electricity? Start your car? Wax philosophical all you want, but life is inherently unfair...

    Actually, when I go to the store, I can buy produce (or meat) from local farmers--or I can go to the farmers market, subscribe to a CSA, grow it myself, or use any of various alternatives that will allow me to know more about the product. At the very least, I can buy according to some legislated standards (e.g., USDA Organic) that I am OK with. Similarly, instead of starting my car (which I definitely do NOT do with a clean conscience), I can walk or bike. I can use renewable energy instead of coal for the lights, and I can use LEDs or other efficient illuminators.

    I think you have a point, but I think tech is different because, short of not buying it at all, you don't really have these alternatives--at least according to this article.

  • by jythie (914043) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:06PM (#40121665)
    True, they have 'part 1' of that process down, but it is questionable if China will be able to make the transition from 'fast growing with essentially slave labor' to 'stable well rounded economy'. We managed to transition because of labor unions and public outrage... but we also have a system of elections (so public outrage can effect who gets elected) and, while there were abuses, we have pretty strict rules about retaliation against dissidents.

    China, on the other hand, has no elections (the vast majority of the wealth generated so far is in the hands of party officials and their family) and the country has a history of brutally cracking down on dissident voices.

    So in the US we had a good incremental mechanism for transitioning. In China it would require the dismantling of their government, probably via violent revolution, which has a way of undoing economic gains.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:14PM (#40121735)

    in the US ... executives/owners/investors can afford to give up more of their profits to help ensure a more livable life for their workers.
    in China ... it's better for them to be paid meagerly than to be out of a job.

    I don't think the double standard is as palpable as you think. The difference is that US labor market has deteriorated to change the ratio of worker/executive compensation from a difference of 50-100X a few decades ago to 1000X. Hence reversing the trend would be good. In China, however, the measly wages paid by Apple, etc. constitute an improvement of worker life.
    This is not to say that all is well, but the two situations are different, IMHO, in that US has gone from good to bad and China is going from very bad to somewhat bad (and I've heard arguments that you can't simply go from very bad to good in a large country without taking at least a decade or two).

  • by The Good Reverend (84440) <{michael} {at} {michris.com}> on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:22PM (#40121807) Homepage Journal

    The exact same argument was used to justify continuing slavery - "slaves are better off with the food and housing their masters provide them - setting them free would be cruel".

  • by JOrgePeixoto (853808) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:33PM (#40121891) Journal

    Why focusing only on low-paid labour from China?

    Another product that should awake peoples consciences is oil.

    Oil comes from very oppressive and aggressive places - Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran. By buying oil we fund a future Jewish genocide. We engage Israel's enemies militarily (thus enlarging the already excessive US military, and feeding anti-Americanism) with our right hand and throw bags of money at them with our left hand. This is *extremely* counter-productive; it would be very funny if it wasn't so tragic. The government should overtax gas-guzzlers (including SUVs!), subsidise economic cars and lift the barriers on Brazilian ethanol.

  • Re:Yes. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by demonlapin (527802) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:34PM (#40121901) Homepage Journal
    This shit gets insightful? Slaves are... slaves. You could rape them, beat them, kill them, in fact you could do anything you damned well pleased to them. As bad as the lives of Chinese peasants are, and as bad as the lives of Chinese factory workers are (hint: it's a lot better than being a peasant), they're almost unimaginably better than the lives of actual slaves.

    By the way, the argument usually advanced was that the Negro was too foolish to provide properly for himself, and that servitude allowed him to contribute to the well-being of mankind while still enjoying the benefits of Christianity and white management. And, of course, in real life there were limitations on how badly slaves could be treated. For starters, they were expensive, equivalent (last I looked) to about $100k apiece today plus the cost of feeding and housing. You don't want to mistreat your capital investment like that, any more than you would run your family-owned factory without maintenance. The great evil of slavery wasn't that the slaves were badly treated (many were, but the lives of poor whites were not much better); it was that they were slaves.
  • by 0123456 (636235) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @01:51PM (#40122015)

    Do you oppose prison labour? Why?

    Why would anyone support prison labour?

    At best it takes jobs away from low-paid workers and gives them to criminals, at worst it encourages the government to lock people up in order to make money.

  • by RobotRunAmok (595286) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:26PM (#40122205)

    Can I buy a piece of tech that was not assembled by an Asian Worker making considerably less than his American Union Factory Worker counterpart? No.

    Can I buy a piece of tech and still have a clean conscience? Sure. Of course.

  • by flyneye (84093) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @02:55PM (#40122417) Homepage

    In fact, to expound on "problems everywhere", if we weren't buying tech, they wouldn't be making tech and would be much worse off with no work at all.
    Just because Charlie Chaplin ate shoe leather in a movie, doesn't mean the "socially conscious" have a right to demand that third world and Asian countries should dismantle what little work they have available. Does being "green" have to mean "Soylent Green"?

  • by realityimpaired (1668397) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @07:36PM (#40124295)

    If people were willing to pay more for goods we wouldn't have destroyed our domestic manufacturing industry in the first place.

    Yes you would have, because the people making the decisions about where to manufacture things are motivated by the margins. Manufacturing was still profitable in the US when it started moving overseas, and it is still profitable today in some niche markets. It's just not profitable enough. Why would you want to net $5 profit per unit when you could net $50 by paying the worker half as much?

  • Short answer? No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by erroneus (253617) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @07:40PM (#40124327) Homepage

    I haven't read through all the comments yet, but in a previous story on a similar topic, someone posted an interesting anecdote about a southern town in the pre-civil war US. This town had strong feelings in opposition to slavery and they eventually outlawed the practice. The town was unable to compete in various markets because the surrounding areas still allowed slavery. The town was doomed until they repealed the anti-slavery law.

    This story illustrates an important thing. Economic factors trump moral factors. The only way to defeat the economic factors to enable moral factors is to dictate them by law... and even that's pretty difficult to do. Take the prohibition of alcohol in the US as an example.

    And here's the kicker: We are talking about imports from nations outside of the legal structure of the US. (As much as the US keeps trying, the world IT still outside of its legal structure.) So if there is to be any progress in the area of quality of life for workers in other countries, there has to be some serious changes made. And the way to make those changes? Some pretty extreme things need to happen... things which most people in the US and in other nations oppose.

    So either learn to live with the guilt or buckle down and support some serious changes in world government because the leaders of other nations are not going to adopt our ideals or beliefs willingly.

  • by pla (258480) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @09:42PM (#40125085) Journal
    Can I buy a piece of tech that was not assembled by an Asian Worker making considerably less than his American Union Factory Worker counterpart?

    Can I buy a piece of American tech guaranteed as "union free", such that no overpriced $30/hr loading dock workers or longshoremen or even office workers, had anything to do with it?

    No? Okay then. Chinese children will suffice.


    More seriously, TFA has a major failure in one of its assumptions - That most people care enough to feel bad. Yes, I would rather buy from someone making a living wage in my own country, and might pay a bit more for it; No, I won't pay 3x as much for it. And no, that doesn't really bother me.
  • by Eskarel (565631) on Saturday May 26, 2012 @10:23PM (#40125323)

    About 80% of the price of an iPhone, even in the US where they're cheaper than most places, is pure profit for Apple. That's not 20% of the cost to manufacturing it's 20% of the cost to manufacture, package, market, ship, and sell. Apple can afford to pay living wages(or at least treat their employees like human beings instead of slaves) and still make a healthy profit.

    Unfortunately somewhere in the last couple of hundred years we've lost our moral compass when it comes to money. At present we seem to live in a society where if it's not illegal then it's just fine to do it whatever the costs or consequences and if it is illegal you buy off some politicians to change the law.

    This is why we need so much legislation these days because business seems to have become incapable of making moral decisions, if we don't outlaw it and require them to fill in huge amounts of wasteful paperwork to prove they aren't doing it, they'll continue to do it.

    Apple is a purely immoral company, in every possible way. They pay the people who make their stuff nothing and those people are treated like something less than human(I'm not talking about any of the accidents, I'm talking about the story straight from an Apple exec of waking the entire factory crew up in the middle of the night to redo the iPad screens). On the other end they gouge consumers and restrict their freedom above and beyond what is justifiable. All in the name of profit at any consequence, and it's become rampant in our society. Society will not survive this continued concentration of all wealth into the hands of a small minority.

  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Sunday May 27, 2012 @12:40AM (#40126127) Journal

    You might want to check the history of the industrial revolution a bit more carefully. Worker conditions in Foxconn factories look like paradise in comparison to conditions in England back then.

    It doesn't mean that such conditions are a necessary part of the industrial revolution. Back then, it was the best anyone offered anywhere in the world. I'd like to think that we have advanced since then, and things that were okay then are no longer okay today.

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