Killer electronics

Derek flagged this article on the human cost of our insatiable demand for new electronic gadgets and asks what the proper Christian response would be.

My suggestion: most Americans wouldn’t pay $15k for an iPad (the amount the author estimates an iPad would cost if manufactured in the U.S.)–would they pay somewhat more than they do now if it meant workers got better treatment? Seems like we see this in other areas–”fair trade” coffee, chocolate, etc. What about fair trade electronics? Plus, paying slightly more might mean that we buy fewer gadgets and/or replace them less often, which would probably be good for us (and good for the environment, since most electronics are pretty toxic when disposed of).

More ambitiously, we need to make international trade fairer on a structural level so that it doesn’t reward the companies that treat their employees the worst and the governments that permit it.

6 thoughts on “Killer electronics

  1. After midnight and I can’t sleep so I’m wandering blog sites I bookmarked at some time in the past to see if they are still out there since it is my perception that people are blogging less or commenting less in these days of fakebook and twitterdumb.

    And yes you are and thanks for waking me up.

  2. Camassia

    I’ve thought about this question myself. I will say, I don’t think the iPad would be THAT much more expensive if made in the U.S. The author seems to be assuming that since American workers get paid 30 times more than these Chinese factory workers, the device would cost 30 times as much. But that’s ignoring the other expenses that go into it: raw materials, labor in the better-paid divisions (such as R&D and marketing), advertising, capital expenditures, etc., none of which would have that sort of price differential. I don’t say this because I think buying American is the solution here, but it’s best not to terrify people with inflated ideas of how much things would cost if workers were paid good wages.

    I like the fair-trade-electronics idea, but it would be a tougher row to hoe than something like coffee. For one thing, we HAVE to import coffee, tea and cocoa because the American climate is unsuited to growing them (except in parts of Hawaii, but that’s tiny), so there’s no real debate on why we should be helping these dang foreigners when Americans could have those jobs. For another thing, I think it’s fairly easy to get into the food-wholesaling business to serve a niche market, but there are only a few companies in the world with the expertise to make a tablet computer. Probably the best hope would be to persuade one of them to offer fair-trade products as a specialty line, sort of the way some coffee roasters offer fair-trade coffee as an option but not as their whole business. It would be interesting to see how the market would respond to such an experiment.

    1. Yeah, I thought that figure seemed inflated.

      I had the same thought about the niche-product line vs. niche retailer issue too. Customers would have to lobby Apple (or whoever) to let them know that they wanted something like this.

  3. Have we already paid that 15K in wage stagnation and compensation package shrinkage over thirty years of free trade, watching the rich get a lot richer while the rest of us slowly sink?

  4. Statistics are hard to interpret. I don’t like the idea of people being driven to suicide to make products for me. But is this really how the above story should be interpreted?

    For another look at the numbers, see here:

    If this were a story about an American company, how would you interpret the argument? Would you assume that every worker in a company who committed suicide did so because of working conditions? Has that been your experience of why people do this? (I buy such an explanation when the numbers are particularly high for a specific type of work, e.g. the “disgruntled postal worker.”) It appears that the Chinese average of suicides is lower than that for American males, and the Foxconn numbers are lower than that for China. But we know that people in America commit suicide in these numbers for a host of reasons, many of them related to mental health. I’m not altogether sure that the original article was wrong, but there are questions to be asked before we accept the assertions made.

    There is a problem to be solved here. I’m not clear just what the answer is. But I would imagine that some of the solutions, at least, are in Chinese hands.

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