How Ethical is Your Tech?
While the fashion industry has made significant inroads when it comes to supply chain transparency, the same cannot be said about the tech industry. So, how ethical is your tech, really?
I think that it can be easy to ignore the ethics of consumer technology because we see it as a necessity. It can feel off-limits to suggest that the items we have grown so dependent on to function during a global pandemic could possibly be linked to exploitation and slavery.
But the fact of the matter is that the tech supply chain is riddled with human rights abuses and poor production practices.
This doesn’t mean we should opt out. After all, that may be impossible at this point. But it does mean we should consider what’s at stake when these stories remain hidden, and commit to speaking out about the industry’s issues.
There are also ways to purchase tech a bit more ethically and sustainably. But first, the facts…
A Note on Terminology
Academics and anti-trafficking organizations use the term forced labor rather than slavery because the former term captures the range of ways in which people are trapped.
Not everyone is stolen away in the night. Many workers leave their countries with work visas in hand on the promise of better work elsewhere. When they arrive on the work site, however, their papers are taken away, leaving them unable to move freely within the country or go home. In effect, they are trapped on the remote work site (source: Freedom Center Modern Slavery Exhibit).
Forced Labor in Raw Materials Sourcing
According to the International Labour Organization, approximately “21 million people are now victims of forced labor.” Of that, 68% are caught in forced manufacturing/physical labor jobs not associated with sex trafficking.
This is an illuminating statistic, especially considering that the ethical fashion niche is largely preoccupied with sex trafficking. Case in point: each December, hundreds of people participate in Dressember to raise funds for anti-trafficking efforts focused primarily on women caught up in sex trafficking.
And yet, 68% of people subjected to forced labor work in raw goods and manufacturing supply chains, more than half of them men.
Most forced labor in raw materials occurs in coal mining and pig iron production, industries heavily associated with the automobile industry. In fact, Ford dedicates a whole page to discussing their efforts to extricate themselves from markets known to rely on forced labor. Pig iron, a byproduct of coal and coke (a high-carbon fuel) is used to make steel, an essential ingredient in vehicle production, but not exclusive to it.
Traditional computer cases (or towers) are made out of steel. Laptops contain steel, too. Even your iPhone contains a nickel-steel composite and (on some models) a steel ring around the home button. Not to mention that the assembly machines required to put your phone together are made of steel, at least in part.
Materials sourced from industries known for trafficking helped make your smartphone.
Human Rights Abuses in Tech Factories
Chinese worker, 26, making Apple iPhones died after enduring 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, family claim (Daily Mail)
Tracing raw materials sourcing was the hard part. Finding human rights abuses in the tech industry is as easy as breathing. The family of Tian Fulei assert that their son died after working 84 hours per week at an Apple factory near Shanghai. Findings from a China Labor Watch investigation conducted at Pegatron, the factory where he worked, concluded that workers, on average, took 95 overtime hours per month, over double the legal recommendation.
In 2010, Foxconn, a factory that makes tech products for Apple, Sony, Dell, and others, attracted global media attention when it was discovered that there had been 15 attempted suicides among workers in that year alone. The attempted suicide rate now numbers over 20, with 17 resulting in death.
In Dongguan, workers at a poorly ventilated factory that produces cell phones were asked to clean each screen with something described as “banana oil,” a compound now known to contain n-hexane, an industrial solvent that causes neurological damage. They discovered this when several of the young workers became paralyzed, unable to lift themselves out of bed.
In 2014, a China Labor Watch investigation found children under 16 making cell phone covers for Samsung at one of their Chinese factories. Children are paid less and subject to the same conditions as adults, and many of them were working 12 hour night shifts 6 to 7 days a week.
Similar abuses have been uncovered in the Hitachi and Canon supply chain.
As of 2020, Apple and Lenovo are implicated in Uighur forced labor. The Uighur people are an ethnic and religious minority in China who have been subjected to significant human rights abuses, including forced sterilization, internment, and forced labor. Human rights watchdogs are calling it genocide.
Both tech giants contract with a supplier known to be involved in Uighur forced labor.
It’s easy to say this is China’s problem, that if China cared for its people they would implement more rigorous factory reforms. But Kate Cacciatore, former corporate responsibility director at STMicroelectronics gets to the heart of the problem:
A huge issue is how companies walk the line between trying to get the best financial performance and also achieving high safety standards. There is a constant pressure on companies to cut costs, and that pressure works itself down the supply chain.
The companies we support demand lower costs from the factories they contract with to pad their own profit margins. Factory managers competing for big contracts cut costs in the only places they can: labor and safety upgrades. We aren’t the only ones to blame, but we can’t put this all on China.
Tech factory workers endure long hours and unsafe conditions to make your smartphone.
Sustainable Tech Alternatives
While individual consumers have limited power to transform the supply chain on our own, we do have collective power. Instead of ignoring the problems in the industry, we can make a few changes that show powerful tech corporations that we are paying attention.
And in most cases, these switches will also save us money.
1. Boycott tech companies and let them know why you’re doing it.
- Tell them that you demand better conditions for workers.
2. Buy refurbished or used technology.
- Use sites like Newegg and B&H Photo to purchase high quality, used or refurbished goods the next time you’re in the market for an upgrade.
- I use both sites for nearly all of my tech purchases.
3. Buy a Fairphone.
- An ethically produced smartphone exists! It runs on Android technology, comes in two sizes, and costs less than an iPhone.
- This phone is not yet available outside of Europe due to differences in provider setup, but they’re working on it! Sign up here to let them know you’re interested!
Resources & Additional Reading
- End Slavery Now
- A Day in the Life of an iPhone Factory Worker
- How China is Screwing Over its Poisoned Factory Workers
- International Labour Organization
- Ethical, Eco-Friendly Mobile Phones
- Is your Cell Phone an Accessory to War?
- Ethical Consumer’s Guide to Mobile Phones
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.
Thursday 7th of January 2016
Thank you for writing this! I was just researching ethical computers and not having a ton of luck - now I'll look at Newegg and B&H Photo! And I have signed up to tell Fairphone that I want one in the US.
Monday 4th of January 2016
thanks for the tip, Andria. I added the sign up link to the post.
Monday 4th of January 2016
You can go ahead and get on their mailing list to let them know they have your interest!
Monday 4th of January 2016
This is a great article, Leah! Phones are one of the things that concern me, since everyone has them and they've become such a common part of our society. I'm super interested in the Fair Phone, and it looks like they are gathering info. to see if they have enough interest to ship to the U.S. I would buy one!