Fair Trade Electronics

The recent, promising events around working conditions in Apple's factories are hopefully leading toward a new definition of "shareholder value."

Earlier this year, Apple Inc. made an announcement that has potentially significant ramifications for the technology marketplace.

No, I am not referring to the iBooks 2/iBooks Author announcement. I'm talking about the Apple decision to enlist the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to inspect the foreign factories where their products are made, specifically the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China, that have been the focus of much criticism of late (including my editorial on the topic last November, tco).

Not that the FLA decision didn't meet with its own criticism. Almost as soon as Apple made the announcement, there were new voices of concern about the impartiality of the president of the FLA, Auret van Heerden, who, according to several news reports including The New York Times, said Foxconn's "facilities are first class" and "Foxconn is really not a sweatshop." As Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said in the same Times article, "Generally, in a labor rights investigation, the findings come after the evidence is gathered, not the other way around."

In spite of, or maybe because of, the inappropriateness of van Heerden's remark, within a week or so, Foxconn announced that it was raising worker wages between 16 and 25 percent.

Do I think that these events are promising? I actually do. Even though Apple is by no means the only company that uses factories with working conditions that we would find unconscionable in this country, it is the only company, to my mind, that can lead the way toward some measure of justice for the people who build our electronics products. And even though the criticisms leveled against Apple and the FLA may be correct, and caution is warranted, I do think that what is happening is movement in the right direction.

To me, that direction is leading us toward an expanded definition of "shareholder value" that goes beyond dollars and cents to include other things of value, like the health and welfare of workers, or the protection of the environment, or strong communities with good schools. I think Apple shareholders--who are enjoying huge profit margins right now--could certainly agree to a small bite out of the company's bank account in exchange for these other kinds of value.

But we, as consumers, have our part to play as well , because what is absolutely going to happen is that we are going to be asked to pay more for our products-- as well we should. I'm mindful that not everyone can afford top-tier prices. But I believe there are people and institutions--especially mission-driven institutions like schools, colleges, and universities--that will pay more for a new kind of shareholder value. After all, many of us pay more for fair trade coffee because we don't think a cheap cup of coffee in the morning is more important than the safety and welfare of the people who grow the beans. Likewise for the people who build our computing devices: Isn't the world ready for a Fair Trade Electronics organization?

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at [email protected].