Is There an Ethical Gadget?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Alex Pasternack, editor of Motherboard, Vice's science and tech site, and a correspondent for Discovery's, follows up on our conversation last week about Apple's labor and manufacturing practices.

How much of an "ethics-premium" would you pay to know that your gadget was manufactured responsibly? 50%, 100%, less or more? Let us know!


Alex Pasternack

Comments [38]

rolf niebergall from New York

I like your show very much and I am a supporter of your station!I have something what I would like to express for this country.I am a former physicist, because I am now retired. After the oil crisis in 1973 I worked on the development of solar cells. I developed a cheap, cheap solar cell. No vacuum or expensive silicon was necessary! At that time I got about 27% efficiency. When the oil crisis was over no one asked anymore for solar cells. May be, some one is interested in a new consideration in order to make cheap solar panels? Why should it go other countries and create many jobs? Please get in touch with me. phone# (516) 348-4956

Feb. 02 2012 05:31 PM
tom LI

To PopeJon - those BIZ's that invested in their communities did so because they had to since at one time employers tapped the local market for employees...that is no longer the case anymore. Less so when they can get the assembly, etc so much cheaper and from employees NOT in their community, where they (employers) would have to listen to their grievances.

If Americans WANT manufacturing back, we have to decide what we want to produce, and IF a company can tap into a local employee market that isn't going to run them out of business with their Benefit Expectations.

IMO, manufacturing like we once had is a fantasy now...

Jan. 30 2012 04:55 PM
NC from NYC

I feel like the "ethical premium" I'm willing to pay is only 5%

Jan. 30 2012 04:11 PM
Adam from South Portland, Maine

There was some misinformation provided about the Kindle Fire. Foxconn does not produce the Fire as stated by the guest. Quanta Computer out of Taiwan manufactures the Fire.

Jan. 30 2012 01:12 PM
SJG from NYC

This is an unfair question. News Flash: Apple is not the only company manufacturing its product in China. Tech isn't the only industry manufacturing in China. Virtually everything is being made in China precisely because labor, safety, health, environmental and other regulations are less onerous than in the US and other parts of the world.

Those listeners answering that they are willing to pay $X for an iPad in the interest of Chinese workers are deceiving themselves when they think this choice is what it will take to make a difference. In reality, so much of what we buy, enjoy, wear, eat and consume costs what it does because of companies operating in China. To improve conditions for Chinese workers we would need to drastically change our buying habits and lifestyles. To pretend that we can address this problem with a price increase for one line of products from one company is disrespectful to the true scale of the problem and will prevent us from understanding what it would take to solve it.

Jan. 30 2012 01:03 PM
PopeJon from Ridge, NY

It is BS... And the facts are most of the engineering and design for Apple is done in America with American Engineers and American Designers. Apple seems to have no problem finding skilled workers that come from very specialized industries in America. Again, many companies don't wait for a free hand out and train their own work force. Take a hit in those big profit margins and invest in your own back yard (remember when companies used to actually invest in their own local community?). It more then pays off in the long run when everybody has a job and can spend money. Instead its all about big profit now, now, now....

Jan. 30 2012 12:44 PM
valleyguy from NYC

There is one engineer for every 20 workers at Foxconn. They went to state schools - kind of like our community colleges. Foxconn doesn't train them, and you can't run a factory without them. As for the assembly line workers, their math and reading skills exceed the average here. You can call that BS but those are the facts.

Jan. 30 2012 12:30 PM
PopeJon from Ridge, NY

valleyguy from NYC,

That's GOP and business BS... You don't need a four year degree to build an i-pad. These Chinese workers didn't come out of the country side with the natural ability or already educated on how to build i-pads. FoxConn trained them. There are companies here that constantly train and re train their workers. Its called investing in your workers. You cant rely on just free public vocational education to build your company. You have to invest in your own workers.

Jan. 30 2012 11:26 AM
valleyguy from NYC

We can't make iPads in the US - our labor skills just aren't adequate. Educate our population and then maybe we can shift jobs here.

Jan. 30 2012 11:02 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

The 'Conn' in FoxConn is for connector. There isn't a computer cable inside of the standard desktop that isn't made by them. The ubiquity of our electronics has pushed this race to the bottom and we had better DEMAND they step it up or get ready to join some of those FoxConn workers on the ledge.

Jan. 30 2012 11:02 AM
Lynn from Brooklyn

Great topic, this has been all we are talking about around our dinner parties all week. I have two points.
One, both myself personally and from what I have surveyed on social media and in discussions with my friends we are willing to pay 100$ to double the price for those items AND to bring those jobs home.

Two, why is that the company NEVER, EVER, NOT ONCE, thinks to take any lost in profit. The numbers were staggering of what for example Apple makes in PROFIT off each unit sold. It was like 400%. There is more than enough profit there for the company to take the lost to stand up for what is right and provide it's clients with want it expects!

And lastly, apple is being targeted in this debate is beacuse thier client EXPECTS more.
They do think different and they expect different!

Jan. 30 2012 10:59 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Nobody will ever agree to pay more, unless either (a) forced to do so by the government, or (b) out of normal stupidity of the mass majority that P.T. Barnum and everyone in business has counted on ever since. Sheep are there to be fleeced.

Jan. 30 2012 10:59 AM
Jean Freely from NYC

If ethics now come into play I'd have to go without rather than pay more. Like the caller said these products are already highly overpriced and though I'd love an iPad or iPhone I can't afford it anyway.

Jan. 30 2012 10:58 AM
carolita from nyc

Yeah, I'd pay more. I have been known to pay the full price of a gadget to avoid signing up for a contract with the dreaded Verizon. So, if I'd do that on principle, I guess I'd also pay more for a gadget on principle. But I'm one of those people who use a device till it's obsolete. I'm not one of the folks that keep inventory moving, if you see what I mean. People might be less inclined to upgrade to new devices if they paid more for them, which in turn would make inventory fly less quicly off the shelves, I'm assuming.
On the other hand, maybe this mentality, if it were adopted more broadly, would encourage manufacturers of devices to make them more durable, and upgradable by hardware updates on the owners' actual devices (meaning they'd keep the physical device, just modify it) as well as software.

I've often wished for that.

Jan. 30 2012 10:58 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Well, I can't afford to pay more, but I did wait till my plan w/Credo Mobile was up for renewal so they were offering some phones for free & then picked 1 that was made partly w/recycled & mostly w/recyclable materials. If it were a q. of paying more, people could always buy a phone w/fewer bells & whistles for the same price the highest-end ones go for now.

Jan. 30 2012 10:58 AM
Matthew from Greenpoint

This sounds as ridiculous as the NJ Gay marriage referendum.

Hoping that people's willingness to pay more for an ethical electronic device is like voting on other peoples rights and freedoms. We should be demanding worker dignity for everyone, even the Chinese.

Jan. 30 2012 10:57 AM
Joel from Nyack

I would be willing to pay 10% to 15% more. I don't think that it would cost the manufacturer any more than that to produce these item ethically. Also, if Apple and others were willing to take a smaller profit that would also help. Apple makes a very high margin on it's products.

Jan. 30 2012 10:57 AM
YZ from Brooklyn

If you're paying extra to "ensure" your gadget is ethical, what organization is going to be responsible for authenticating this Seal of Ethicality? How can we ever trust that businesses aren't always going to do what businesses do: try to make the most profits for their shareholders while spending the least amount of overhead possible?

Jan. 30 2012 10:56 AM
laura from brooklyn

It's actually a simple choice: instead of buying a new phone every couple of years, save up and get the more ethically manufactured phone - it's worth the wait. Being environmentally conscious is another consideration in this calculation.

Jan. 30 2012 10:56 AM
anon from Brooklyn, New York

Is Tibet one of the conflict areas being mined for minerals? I know China has been mining in Tibet for decades and wondered if any of the mining is for the minerals found in our cell phones & other devices.

Jan. 30 2012 10:56 AM
larry roth from manhattan

re paying more for 'correctly' made products;

The short answer is WALMART/ SEARS / Kohls//

Until there is serious re-education on all this..
the Consumer will / always goes to the cheaper price.

look at the MARKET .. those NOT listening to all these excellent discussions on NPR.


Jan. 30 2012 10:56 AM

Apple is fabulously wealthy. Its gadgets are expensive, but its production costs are rock bottom. So....why isn't anyone commenting on Apple's markup? If Apple cared about work standards, let it cut its markup some and pay workers more equitably.

Jan. 30 2012 10:55 AM
Suzie Baer

I can't be smug about having an Android anymore? I'm pretty cheap, but I would pay the extra amount for an apple product.

Jan. 30 2012 10:55 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

Trish and Jack, right on.

Jan. 30 2012 10:55 AM
helen from manhattan

I would pay more for an ethically created gadget, possibly 20 to 30% more. However, I don't see how Apple, who is making record profits, can really get away with unethical production when they don't need to be doing such cost cutting? Not just Apple, but all these companies now who are so profitable yet have such questionable business practices. I don't know why Apple doesn't try to start making products in America if they can afford to.

Jan. 30 2012 10:54 AM
John A.

Isn't the ethics problem in the 2-year-plan itself? It mandates a monthly charge for new hardware (your deluxe cellphone does not *cost* $199.) and if you don't renew your phone every 2 years then they just make you feel like you're losing out.

Jan. 30 2012 10:54 AM
Trish from Midtown

Wait a minute, didn't Apple make something like $3 Billion in profit last quarter? Why should the consumer pay a premium for 'ethically produced' products? At what point does a company have the responsibility to put some of their extraordinarily large profits into making the world a better place?

Jan. 30 2012 10:53 AM
PopeJon from Ridge, NY

I would pay twice for an ethical cell phone. I'd pay 3 times for ANYTHING MADE IN THE USA!!!!

Jan. 30 2012 10:53 AM
jill from manhattan

my sister in law worked at Motorola cell phone plant in Tianjin China,she has been having disformed egg and birth defective fetus since the last 10 years. Now they plan to give up natural conceive process by adopting.

Jan. 30 2012 10:53 AM
Maggie from Brooklyn

Does the Chinese government have no responsibility here for protecting its people? (or is that just too naive a question?)

Jan. 30 2012 10:52 AM
rachel from nyc

I would pay 25-33% more of the products were made in the US. That way we would help our economy, hopefully environment and certainly they would be made in a more humane way.

Jan. 30 2012 10:52 AM
Sebastien from Philadelphia

Hi Brian,
good show overall although you do have a tendency of shorthanding important details...

You keep calling the factories Apple's factories except that Foxconn makes the gadgets for:
Motorolla, HTC, Samsung, HP, Compaq, Dell, EVERYONE!

Please make an effort, and do the research yourself.
The people who started the Apple tread have a vested interest in focusing only in Apple.


Jan. 30 2012 10:50 AM
Scarfie from nyc

Please stop targeting Apple - they all do it: Amazon, Dell, Lanovo, Nokia...the list endless, Panasonic, name it...I checked it on Wikipedia!

Jan. 30 2012 10:35 AM
John A. from the MIT flea, April to October

Just a shout out for Digital Equipment Corporation of Massachusetts. Once the number two computer company worldwide, it made much of its products in America and Ireland even. So, where did they have to set they prices? in the $10,000 & up range. What happened to them? Bought out by Microsoft and a PC company in 1997.
As an aside, DEC computers would stay on the used market for years, and could be obtained for perfectly affordable prices in the Trenton flea (another shout-out) and on eBay.
Buy and Hold. A new computer should last at least 6 years.

Jan. 30 2012 10:14 AM
Peter from Brooklyn

Please discuss US corporate connections with mining in the Congo, and compare our reaction in the West to the millions who have been killed there with our reactions to violence in Sudan.

Also, please discuss US policy toward weakening the US dollar, which would benefit US manufacturers and raise the cost of outsourcing labor to China and other countries which violate workers' rights. Note that the US can unilaterally offer to buy renminbi at a higher rate than China, among other tactics.

Jan. 30 2012 10:10 AM
Douglas from New York

Your question should be 'How much should I pay for ANYTHING that's made in CHINA in reference to the ethics of manufacturing practices there'. The original New York Times article, like the off-Broadway play's attack on Steve Job's former company is so one sided that when you hop onto that bandwagon, you become as fair and balanced as FOX News. The NY TImes article basically has one line buried in their article mentioning that other companies share the same factories as Apple. If you bother to read some of the comments to that piece, you will find some Chinese input that says factories producing Samsung, Asus, Lenovo, just to name a few, fare even worse in the matter. I was so disgusted with the NYTimes article that I suspended my subscription to that rag and in sweet revenge I will stand in line for an iPhone 5. I have never own the iPhone. In fact I will buy the next new product that Apple produces. One last thing, who's labor laws should factories in China adhere to, the US Labor Department?

Jan. 30 2012 10:08 AM

Carbon Footprint is a good start. That could be extended to Total Footprint, which could account for social responsibility, such as enriching workers/farmers...

An even cooler idea would be a system called something like "Tenth Generation," i.e. a product or system that formally contextualizes all of its present actions in the light of how it will effect, socially and environmentally, the lives of the tenth generation of those actually doing the labor or benefitting from it. (Come to think of it, we buy some paper products from a company called 7th Generation, could be similar idea, although they do not market that angle beyond their name, nor do they include social context, only that they only use recycled materials).

Jan. 30 2012 09:51 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

BL's teaser for this segment has been asking how much more would you pay for Apple to treat its workers fairly?

My answer is that I would pay nothing extra nor should I be asked to. Ethical treatment of their contractors is my expectation for a major competitor in the American marketplace. Apple's mark-up is already somewhere on the order of 250%.

Should Apple be on the hook for the exploitation of foreign workers by foreign owned suppliers? Yes and no. I blame that on the GOP because of the changes to the requirements for MFN for China (and NAFTA, too). But neither should Apple be seen as an exception. All of our off-shored manufacturing processes are most likely run in factories that enforce the same or similar conditions. Rather than use the opening of the 'protected' American market as a path for better conditions for foreign workers, capital has sought to unemploy the better compensated workers and further slant the distribution of income here in the U.S. The end result of this strategy is a collapse as workers are no longer able to buy what they make.

I buy my Apple products from eBay. I'm perfectly happy to use what someone else is willing to sell without adding to Apple's bottom line.

Jan. 30 2012 09:30 AM

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