The BBC traced Apple’s supply chain back to its roots and found that, among other things, tin used in iPhones comes from dangerous mud mines in Indonesia that employ and kill children and that Chinese people who assemble iPhones work such long hours that they occasionally fall asleep on the job.
These discoveries are startling and depressing. At the very least, they should remind us that the true cost of iPhones is much higher than what we, Apple’s rich customers, actually pay for them.
If this really is news to you, though, you’ve been living in denial.
If you’re suddenly appalled at Apple, moreover, you should acknowledge a few things:
- Tin from dangerous Indonesian mines undoubtedly finds its way into other manufacturer’s smartphones, too (so don’t feel smug about your Android)
- Apple is more transparent about working conditions in its supply chain than just about any other company in the world (and you already know how depressing these conditions are)
- Apple has made clear that it sources tin from Indonesia. It has also made clear that this is a complicated decision (and you don’t really care)
- Apple has made enormous improvements in the working conditions in its supply chain over the last several years, and it continues to make them. Apple also freely acknowledges that it’s not perfect and has lots of work left to do. (An admirably honest assessment.)
- Building iPhones is a terrible, low-paid, monotonous, exhausting job that most iPhone customers would be appalled by and would never want to do. ( You already know this.)
- Building iPhones is a better job in China than many other jobs in China, which is why so many people do it. (Depressing, but undeniable.)
- Apple is fantastically profitable and could invest more of its profits in paying its suppliers better and hiring more employees to monitor working conditions in its supply chain. But there’s no free lunch: If Apple did this, it would earn less money, and some people would freak out about that. (Maybe even you!)
- Many, many consumer products, including jewelry, makeup, microwave ovens, TVs, and video game consoles also contain materials that are extracted using child labour (and worse). One of our writers recently discovered that her modest consumption habits depend on the work of 43 slaves. (You consume a lot of these products, too. And you don’t really care. Or at least you don’t care enough to stop buying the products.)
None of this is to say that some of the truth about the parts and labour that go into your iPhone isn’t depressing and horrifying. It is.
It is also not to say that Apple shouldn’t keep trying to do better. It should.
But as you go around wagging your finger at Apple today, be honest about your own contribution to this problem. Today’s economy is global. Some of the people who make the products you use every day have jobs and lives that you would consider appalling. You know this. You just fortunately don’t have to think about it very often. You are also choosing to continue buying these products, even though you know what goes into them.
That’s your choice, not Apple’s. So you might as well own it.
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