Does Apple have the Power to Change the World?

by Jeff Wiener on February 2, 2012

I’m torn. On the one hand I like my iPhone (I mean I really like it), while on the other hand I can’t ever imagine any of the staff here at Digitcom enduring the working conditions that those along Apple’s supply chain face on a daily basis. So what’s the answer? How do we fix this ethical problem?

Yesterday business mogul Donald Trump weighed in on the issue, challenging new Apple CEO Tim Cook to relocate Apple’s supply chain to America, calling for Apple to pioneer the move towards in-sourcing, that is, bringing American companies’ supply chains abroad back to U.S. soil. But in today’s global economic market is pulling production out of these countries really the answer?

Where Trump is clearly interested in companies like Apple bringing their supply chains to America as a way of boosting a flagging economy, I continue to frame the entire situation in human terms, in a way that helps the Chinese Foxconn workers and helps us here at home, and perhaps its within that framework that a possible solution can be found.

It was a little over a decade ago when the corporate trend of the day was outsourcing, the relocation of many aspects of one’s business, including manufacturing, supply lines, and customer service to other countries where employment standards were lower and employment expenditures could thus be reduced.

The result of such outsourcing was that many companies indeed were able to reduce employment costs and thus increase revenues, although for customers it often meant that a phone call to the customer service department of the company down the street meant a call rerouted to somewhere in rural Asia…but I digress.

For years now the North American consumer has been living in blissful ignorance of the human story behind outsourcing, happy to purchase cheaper gadgets and technology and happy to not have to think about any of the ethical issues associated with how those devices are made. But as enhanced communication brings our global community that much closer together it’s becoming impossible to ignore the impact that our consumer habits have on the rest of the world.

With all that said, though, the question remains, is outsourcing really the problem? There’s no question that companies traditionally outsource because labour is cheaper overseas, with countries like China and India taking hard stances against unionized labour, allowing wages to stay low. So to a degree there’s no denying that the drive to save a buck has created this situation.

In my mind, however, there could be even more damage done if companies like Apple pulled their manufacturing operations out of countries like China entirely, a move that would undoubtedly result in mass layoffs, ending in other human tragedies as well.

Truthfully (and I’m not sure how politically correct this will sound) I think the answer is that we need to start bringing some of our North American employment standards to these other countries, and its here, I think, that Apple could truly be a pioneer. As was stated yesterday, all Apple would realistically need to do would be to demand workers along its supply line be treated better and it would be done. As the NY Times report stated last week, “Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Is it all as simple as that? Probably not, but we have to start somewhere.

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