Moral dilemma of a first worlder: Let's talk about the ethics of the goods we buy

February 22 |

Oh hey! This thread has a great discussion. I've rounded up the highlights here. If you want to weigh in, feel free to comment on this post!

Assembly Line Dance © by jurvetson, used under Creative Commons license.
What with recent events in the news about Foxconn, the Chinese company that produces gadgets for Apple, Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, and others, I've started to sit down and wonder if I really want to be purchasing products that were made by people living and working in poor conditions.

Going without technology isn't an option for me, as I'm a full-time college student whose teachers submit all their homework online…

But how can I make a protest of these crimes against humanity when it seems like everywhere I turn, another product I use is/was made in a similar situation? -Lolly

Golly, I wish I had an answer for you. For us. It seems like the options are:

  1. Turn our heads and ignore the implications of our tech addiction.
  2. Be conscientious objectors. Buy no tech (because…aside from a company making TVs in Arizona, I can't find a manufacturer working in technology and working in the US.)

My plan has been, simply, to try to curb my consumption. Oh I know: I did my share of philosophy classes. I'm sure there is a parable which explains that If I'm consuming ANY electronics, it's no different from ME, PERSONALLY, causing people around the world to work 20 hour days and then sleep in beds the size of coffins.

But here I am, on my VAIO, with an iPhone next to me…and a Roku not far from that.

Well, my purchasing/lifestyle decisions, while small, certainly impact the rest of the world.

I did find a good resource in this article from Kanel Strand:

Don't be an American. Imagine you have to move to a quaint little 4th floor walk up apartment in Paris and it has no storage space for anything. What would you take with you to live there? Think about what is most valuable to you and what you can't live without. Ok. you can stop daydreaming about moving to Paris now but de-clutter and simplify your living space as if you are. — Step 12: How to Overcome Consumerism

But this is a conversation I'm ready to have. Help us, Homies! Do we have a choice beyond "don't use electronics"?

  1. One way not to give money to companies whose ethics anger you is not to buy brand-new stuff. Second-hand goods were still produced in China by underage workers, but by offering them a second chance, you're not encouraging the company to produce more AND you're reducing waste.
    This is my own way of protesting against consumerism. Also, buying second-hand requires more work and logistics than merely going into a shop and buying stuff, which eliminates the drive to buy most of the time.

    19 agree
    • Mmhmm. I love refurb electronics. I never need THE NEWEST THING, so by the time I get around to buying an iPhone or netbook or Macbook, there are loads of refurbs on the market. I consider it a good investment — whatever was most likely to go wrong already went wrong, and everything else got a second pair of eyes.

      1 agrees
      • But buyer be aware: if you buy refurb FROM THE COMPANY ITSELF, you're just giving the company Money and a Half for the product that they originally had manufactured in these conditions. And, add to that the extra parts that were replaced within or on the device to refurbish it, so even more labor went into the device which you're paying even less for, at a higher profit to the company.

        Edited to add: and I'd argue that it's supporting every company's garbage policy of "Oh, looks like you're one week out of warranty. Oh, you cracked the screen? Yeah, pay us 3/4 the price of a new one to replace it. We'll have that out to you in a couple weeks." But that's just me being grumbly. Haha XD

        Ethically speaking, everything sucks. Let's go back to rocks and sticks.

        1 agrees
        • WELL EFF. I am never going to leave my bed again. It's the only way.

          2 agree
          • Check the tags on your mattress. And sheets. And pillow. And…
            Seriously. It's so frustrating to want to buy and live conscientiously, while "needing" to live with the technology and comforts of the 21st century.

            5 agree
          • I know! Some days I just think…should I move to a cabin? I CANNOT TAKE THE GUILT OF MY IMPACT ON THE WORLD.

            And then I think that is probably not the way to be the change I want to see in the world.

            5 agree
    • We've bought some really great electronics second-hand. My used Nook runs better than my computer did brand-new. I think the key to buying quality used stuff is to have extensive communication with the person you're buying from. I repeat, extensive.

      If you don't have to have the newest thing, wait for second or third generations of the thing and buy that one used. First gen products usually have more issues as they age.

      1 agrees
  2. I love this post as it's something I've been contemplating ever since Wisconsin's protests in 2011. The working conditions of factories, the low wages, loss of American jobs, etc. It was depressing and I'm embarrassed to know that I contributed through my passive consumerism. Factor in the environment and the quality of food we receive… It's overwhelming!

    So I created a list of values and marketing buzzwords that were important to me; sustainable, eco-friendly, green, ethically raised, organic, Made in the USA, fair trade, fair wages, recycled, and natural. Then I sorted then in terms of priority. The terms with the highest priority were what I would look for before purchasing a product. Armed with that as my end goal I could do research before purchasing. If nothing matched that criteria I would move to the next set of priorities.

    Like other commenters I also started to buy everything but food second hand. My PC, laptop and iPod all came before I learned of any of this, but I've decided not to buy anymore. I taught myself how to properly care for my electronics to prolong their use. Whenever I get the itch for something I ask myself, "Is this a genuine need or a 'convenience treat'?"

    When I do buy new I offset its purchase through donations. I've spent 120$ since that resolution and I've donated about half so far. A co-worker directed me to Kiva (www.kiva.org) which helps people chip in for micro loans around the world for many reasons. He's done it for a while and has a good experience so far.

    The nicest part about attempting to live a sustainable lifestyle (cloth napkins, handkerchiefs, glass bottles, local food etc.) is that it makes boycotting for ethical and political reasons easier. I recognize it's not for everyone though.

    6 agree
    • Can I also recommend you make sure companies are using these words to mean what you think they mean?

      For example in some places (as far as I can tell in the USA it varies by state) factory farmed eggs can be called ethical as long as the cages used are slightly bigger than the chickens inside them.

      And both crushed beetles and extracts from a beavers anal glands qualify as natural colourings or flavourings.

      Whether you're ok with that is up to you, I'm quite happy with beetle coloured, beaver flavoured (or "vanilla") cupcakes, but I know a lot of other people expect something quite different when they see 'all natural colours and flavours' and it's well worth doing the research to make sure you are buying what you think you're buying.

      8 agree
      • WHAAAA?? google search stat!!
        I am ewwwing so hard right now.

        0 agree
      • Eggs have been a particular problem for me. Like you said, "free range" doesn't really mean anything.

        Like, here's a good rule of thumb: if your grocery seems FLUSH with cartons of "free range eggs", those didn't come from an idyllic farm where chickens peck around in the dirt.

        Another big warning sign is "vegetarian-fed". Again, it doesn't really mean anything, but chickens AREN'T herbivores. They forage and eat plants and seeds, insects, and even small lizards.

        SO. This is what makes me want to raise chickens, but since I don't, I trip out to our local gourmet grocery (where I want to buy all the things, but pretty much just stick to eggs) and buy eggs from chickens who live on non-industrialized farms and eat whatever they find on the ground.

        And at this market? These eggs cost six cents more than the "free range vegetarian fed" eggs at Hy-Vee.

        And in the summer, it's a no-brainer: Farmer's Market.

        2 agree
      • When you get down to brass tacks, though, how is consuming cochineal or castoreum different than consuming meat?

        2 agree
  3. Does anyone know success stories of corporations improving conditions for employees in less-developed countries because of consumer demand? This isn't a rhetorical question; I genuinely want to know. If losing money will just cause these corporations to pack up and move somewhere else where they're still allowed to abuse workers, I'm not sure we're doing anyone any favors by avoiding their products. The workers only have those jobs in the first place because, as terrible as the conditions are, they're better than the available alternatives.

    9 agree
    • Ugh, this is the tough thing. Telling companies that we won't buy their stuff until they improve the conditions for their workers means that they may have to up their prices a little, which then means that the companies we weren't paying as much attention to will basically put them out of business becauase they can sell it for cheap still, until we go after them. Basically, I think the best thing to do is show that you do support companies who treat their workers right, even if they charge more. We can't just avoid/boycott things, we need to actually put our money where our mouth is, and show support for ethical companies. This is tough when you can't afford to spend the extra money, but I think if you CAN afford it, shopping at Meijer instead of Walmart can show the difference. Even my parents, who can totally afford it, shop at Walmart because "it's so cheap!". (This is just an example, obviously.) Don't just donate – make a change by supporting ethical companies, even if it's more expensive!

      4 agree
      • It's not really a specific example but I have noticed a dramatic increase in the avaliability of free range eggs. It used to be that each supermarket had one option, stuck on the corner of a top shelf and costing nearly twice as much.

        Now it's almost hard to find anything else and I can only assume it's down to customers voting with their wallets.

        3 agree
        • Although there are no regulations on those terms yet, so make sure to know the company first!!

          1 agrees
          • It depends on where in the world you are. For example the EU does provide regulations for free range eggs, although not to a particularly high standard.

            You can also look for independant regulators. I'm not sure what the options are in other countries but for example in the UK farms can sign up to be part of the RSPCA's Freedom Foods scheme, which requires them to meet a high standard of welfare and the regulations are published online so consumers can find out exactly how their food was raised.

            0 agree
  4. I have a little book called "The Better World Shopping Guide" by Ellis Jones. It ranks all kinds of companies based on human rights, environmental impact, animal rights, social justice, and community involvement, and gives them a grade. It's not a perfect solution, but it definitely helps me make more conscious choices about just about everything I buy (it ranks a really wide range of companies and separates them into categories so you can look at electronics, hotels, frozen dinners, etc.). There is also a website, http://www.betterworldshopper.org, that contains some information, too.

    2 agree
  5. Another thing you can do is keep your tech longer. I read somewhere that the average American cellphone/smartphone is replaced or upgraded every 18 months. I've had my phone well over five years by now. Do I want to replace it for a shiny new smartphone with all the bells and whistles? Of course. Alll my phone really does is handle calls and text messages. But I just can't make myself get rid of it while it still works.

    13 agree
    • I whole-heartedly agree. Something that cost me $200-$1000+ should not be disposable after two years. I keep cell phones on average 4-5 years and get made fun of but I can't justify upgrading something that works because my cell company tells me to. It's not right from a world resource stand point and not right for me from a financial stand point.

      8 agree
  6. #2 is not an option. sorry, but you can't avoid it at this point unless you go COMPLETELY off the grid.

    you would have to have no kitchen appliances, no electric wires, no pipes in some cases, no silicone on those pipes, no car, no bike, no flights … it's not a matter of avoiding luxery tech items …it's more far reaching than that.

    so unless you're planning on only living & shopping in another century, then it's impossible. i wish it were as simple as a boycott, but it's far too vast to avoid anymore.

    i think your plan of simplifying & being aware is probably the best.

    btw, if you haven't listened to this episode of THIS AMERICAN LIFE, you really should. it's informative & very balanced. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/mr-daisey-and-the-apple-factory

    *the whole thing reminds me of "the jungle" remember that? when industrialization was going crazy in america & there was child labor … kids were getting crushed in presses, people were falling into meat grinders & being sold … humans are a mess

    6 agree
  7. The secondhand thing is definitely an option, as is keeping your tech longer.

    I admit, I'm not all that aware of things. But my hubby and I did agree not to purchase the new iPads when they came out. This means that hubby has an older iPad he was given and I'm still going without. But I admit it's a luxury. I do work in educational technology but that means I have access to an iPad at work (for work). But personally I don't NEED one. So I'll hold off and see what else comes. If another company produces a quality product more ethically, then that could easily sway me. It's hard though to not just get all excited about new tech gadgets. I love my tech.

    2 agree
  8. I am interested to hear more about how to buy refurbished electronics. A while ago someone posted myplasticfreelife.com when Cat asked about how to reduce her plastic usage. One of the suggestions from that web site was to buy refurbished computers to avoid new plastic. A commenter above, Nya, also suggested it. How do you buy a refurbished lap top for example? My lap top is 4 and I know that since these things are not designed to last all that long, I will need to consider buying a new one within the next few years.

    I buy most things second hand now. It never occurred to me that it was possible to do the same thing with a computer. Can one get a refurbished lap top with the most current operating system? How and where can this be done?

    1 agrees
    • Instead of buying a new laptop, see if a local computer tech company can upgrade some of your components. I have a friend who does that for individuals and organizations, and although you are still buying some items, you're cutting down dramatically on what buying a new machine would entail.

      1 agrees
    • I buy refurbished and used electronics on amazon (check out the "used options" on the side bar).

      I'd love to hear other options.

      One thing not mentioned: I try to recycle or gift my old electronics so they don't get tossed in a landfill. So, my mom (who had a 6 year old cell phone that can't hold a charge anymore) is getting my old cell phone. And I gave my niece my old iPod touch.

      1 agrees
    • I don't know about other countries but in the UK there are shops like CEX (Complete Electrionics Xchange) that specialise in selling second hand electronics.

      It is harder to find the newest models or top of the line kit because relatively few people will get rid of it, but when it comes to computers you often don't really need the absolute best of the best either.

      0 agree
  9. this was already linked on the article you linked, but i think is is well worth mentioning directly: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/

    this is something i have been giving a lot of thought to recently, and for me it has a lot to do with choosing whether to spend time or money. i have been seriously planning how to *slow down* and invest the money i am making now into building a life that will require less money and more work. because i find a lot of the *stuff* i buy is intended (often successfully) to save me time, but that there are less-stuff alternatives if i had (made) the time to pursue them.

    2 agree
    • MM-hmm! This is why we still have no furniture. We want to choose carefully and spend wisely.

      0 agree
  10. I the same vein as the "This American Life" piece, consider reading Factory Girls by Leslie Chang.

    0 agree
  11. I'm so glad we're talking about this topic! It's one of those hard-but-important ones.

    Anyone have any suggestions for where to find reliable information about which companies do (or do not) have sustainable / ethical / etc practices? I'd like to support those who ARE doing well in addition to trying to avoid those who aren't. I'm thinking something like Charity Navigator but for businesses / manufacturers.

    1 agrees
    • I know there is an iPhone app called free2work that is about ethical working conditions. It's a US based project and they do quite I but of work, I believe, educating companies on how to track their supply chain. I think this is one of the big problems that big companies arent proactive in monitoring the activities of everyone the outsource to.

      In Australia we have also the ethical consumer guide, but that is pretty Australian specific – http://www.ethical.org.au/

      0 agree
  12. I would like to add that this is not just a first world problem… although I was born and raised and live in the developing world (Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia if it matters) this has also become an issue for me and causes quite a bit of anxiety sometimes, and guilt.
    In general, shopping at the farmers' market for fresh produce, buying clothing secondhand, mending and making clothes and household items, not consuming mass media to avoid consumerism and using public transportation because I don't have a car are actions that may be "green" but the real reason I do them is that they are what I can afford. So when the end of the month comes and I need the savings that come from Walmart… I just do it and try to stop the guilt. Then I drop off my recycling while I'm at it.

    I do other things to help the world. I work for non-profits and NGOs. I have come to accept that doing what I can is good enough: I can't do it all.

    7 agree
  13. This is going to sound weaselly and apologist but I still think it's a point worth considering. These aren't horrible work conditions being imposed on a once-idyllic society. These are horrible conditions that are somewhat less-horrible than many other options these workers have. Kids who sew clothing might otherwise be picking out of landfills to help support their families. And what is an offensive pittance in the First World is a big help in other places. There are people who are literally living in dog cages in Hong Kong.

    Now even I'm not Randian enough to say that therefore these factories are a good thing. People are being abused, their environment is being abused, and we as consumers really are responsible for how much we indirectly encourage this. But the issue is complicated and depressingly pervasive; conflict diamonds, conflict minerals, Ivory Coast chocolate, even Chiquita bananas.

    I encourage everyone to consume smart and do what they can to reduce suffering in the world, but there's only so much that the market can do about human nature. :/

    8 agree
    • This is totally valid. I have to remind myself of this often: I cannot fix the entire world. People will still be shitty to other people. But I do try to recognize how I can HELP. :)

      6 agree
      • Absolutely. Part of being a responsible adult is minimizing your role in making things shitty :)

        So much of trying to do that is like pulling on a string in a knot though. You don't realize how bad the snarl is until you start trying to unravel it. For example: Using less plastic is super good for the environment in a lot of ways. But if that increases the use of aluminum that means a greater need for bauxite which props up the military junta in the Republic of Guinea. But mass boycotting the mines would not only make aluminum more expensive (impacting everything from transportation to food prices), it would devastate the small legitimate economy they do have.

        In the end I think the best you can do is find the little corner of the world you are going to make less shitty. If we all improve our corners maybe we'll eventually meet in the middle of the room and find we've made it a pretty good place.

        8 agree
  14. OK– I'm not even sure how *I* feel about this comment, but want to throw it out there… I have a friend who traveled to Asia to study Buddhism, and while there he stayed with a family that had several children, and several of them worked in a 'sweat shop' type environment. My friend was appalled, and talked to his mentor about it, and the mentor was offended at my friend's shock. He said that it was very elitist for American's to feel like we have all the answers– he said that in poor countries, children are happy to be working, happy to be contributing to their families. He compared it to how in the early days of America, young children helped on the farm or in shops.

    Like I said, even I am not really sure how I feel about it– but I think it's hard to pass judgment on another society whose situation we don't participate in. If we stop buying these products, and these companies shut down, will it make for better working environments for the people? Or will it just mean that they end up starving to death? Just food for thought.

    10 agree
    • Super helpful food for thought. Thanks, Ade!

      1 agrees
    • Very interesting perspective. I hadn't considered this at all. Thanks!

      0 agree
    • This is something I often think about. If a family sends its children to work its rarely because they're cruel. Its because they NEED the money. I honestly feel that supporting programs that make sure those children still get an education and options might be better than boycotting child labor companies.

      5 agree
  15. I would say, be willing to get second-quality brands or be willing to pay more if Fair Trade Electronics are introduced. I hope the latter is the outcome of the media coverage the issue has received lately. For a single, large purchase, I would happily pay more if I could have the benefit of feeling better about the people and resources which brought the product to the market.

    2 agree
  16. Also: stick to multiple-use electronics to cut your overall consumption. Most people can do most of their electronic stuff (video, radio, email, even calling) from a single device nowadays.

    1 agrees
    • I think this is great advice. For my job, I read a lot, and I can't read on a computer screen for very long before getting a migraine, so I have a black-and-white e-reader (no headaches with this device). I would love a tablet of some kind. They are super fun, but I don't actually need one because anything I can't do on my computer, I can do on my e-reader. I think this topic is really about two things: 1) ethical buying practices and 2) consumerism. I don't need everything I want, and just like I tell my daughter, I don't get everything I want simply because I want it.

      1 agrees
  17. Don't forget the library! It's not necessary to own a lot of electronics yourself. If you are in college, utilize the library computers or find the computer labs on campus. Also, I'm guessing that almost every abode has wiring for a land line. It's cheaper, you can pick up a used cordless phone second-hand for nothing (and not have to replace it for years), and you get time to "disconnect" when you are away from home. With the prolific use of cell phones in our society, it's easy to borrow one in case of an emergency like a car braking down. And you can use the greatest technology of all for figuring out how to get places, where to eat, etc: our amazing brains!

    4 agree
    • I don't wanna disconnect away from home – but then my job sends me out and about, often covering huge swaths of northern Taiwan in a day – so my "away from home" is different from many peoples'.

      But really, no, I want ACCESS away from home, I want e-mail and Facebook and the ability to call and text and check my blog comments or deal with work issues (or non-work issues) or look things up (my stolen smartphone had a Chinese dictionary that was such a massive help – I miss it so much) or make reservations or get directions or a map.

      I've found it's useless to pretend I don't want these things – though more power to you if you love "disconnecting" – I do, and no amount of telling myself that I'm really better off will change that. Since my smartphone theft, I've been using a Nokia dumbphone. It's been months. I haven't adjusted. I don't like it one bit.

      So hook me up and call me Cyborg.

      1 agrees
  18. I am SO GLAD to see the Offbeat Home community discussing this issue.

    My family used to own a little retail business, and we had a very strict rule against selling sweatshop goods. Yet a large chunk of our customer base – people who considered themselves progressive – used to pick fights with us because they didn't want to pay more for something made in Spain or Canada. These people could definitely afford the products – they all spent a fortune on takeout, gadgets, travel, entertainment, and in some cases luxury cars, none of which WE could afford – but only cared about the price tag. The words "union-made" and "organic" didn't seem to register with them.

    Western consumers are the most spoiled people on the planet. We have the potential to change the world by demanding ethical/eco-friendly material sourcing and fair working conditions for the people who make and sell the stuff we buy. Yet, most of us don't even THINK about that nearly as often as we ought to. Very few companies are 100 percent perfect, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't choose the most ethical products available. In fact, it's the reason we must. When consumers decide they want something, companies either give them what they want or start to lose their market share to their more responsive competitors. (Trust me on this, I've been studying finance.)

    Warren Buffett once advised a graduating class to imagine that they've been given their dream car – but it's the ONLY car they'll ever have, so they'll have to take exceptionally good care of it. I try to think that way with everything I buy. As a result, I rarely have to replace anything.

    Anyone interested in the ethics of the goods we buy, be they computers or food products, should read "Cheap" by journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell. The primary reason so many consumer goods are made overseas is because we want it all and we want it cheap, which Shell extensively covers in the book.

    Incidentally, it's ethically inconsistent to boycott China and only China over labor concerns alone. Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines all have sweatshops. Every so often, the authorities shut down sweatshops in Los Angeles.

    One more thing: when manufacturers are pretty much evenly matched, buy the best you can afford. Higher-quality items last longer. I certainly don't expect my Macbook to last me 20 years, but a friend of mine who works for Apple says I'll probably have it for a good 5 years. I bought it to replace a Compaq that died (and could not be saved) after only 2 years. Over a 20-year period, I therefore expect to replace the Macbook 3 or 4 times, versus 9 or 10 times for the Compaq.

    5 agree
    • When buying a new computer I'd also recommend finding out what your options are for replacing or upgrading individual parts.

      My first PC was a relatively cheap Dell which was fine for a few years but whenever something did go wrong it was a pain trying to replace it because they really intended you to scrap the entire machine and upgrade.

      Not only does buying replacements for individual parts save you money and reduce the environmental impact, it saves you having to spend time transfering everything or setting your new machine up from scratch too.

      1 agrees
      • YES! I'm a big believer in repairing things to extend their lifespan.

        1 agrees
  19. P.S. With tech, please don't forget that gadgets contain tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, which can be "conflict minerals" – mined to finance genocide. The Enough Project, which works to combat genocide, ranks tech companies by their efforts to avoid conflict minerals.

    Apple and Hewlett-Packard both outsource at least some of their manufacturing to Foxconn. However, HP tops the Enough Project's list, and Apple is a distant second. Hewlett-Packard publishes the names of its mineral suppliers and was the first company to do so. Therefore, I'd rank HP as more ethical than Apple, if only slightly. (Believe me, I do not do this gladly – as mentioned, I own a Macbook. I'm just being honest.)

    2 agree
  20. Foxconn is not a Chinese company. They are Taiwanese. The headquarters are in Taiwan – it's only the factories that are in China, because Taiwan is a developed country and like the USA, labor costs more than manufacturers want to pay. So it's not just Apple that's willing to do this, it's a Taiwanese company willing to do this to Chinese workers (the Taiwanese workers also work long hours, but in white-collar office conditions, not quite as long and aren't stuffed into factory dorms and are very well-paid by Taiwanese standards).

    What's really tough is that it's not just about Foxconn's Chinese plants. Apple hires Foxconn to do design and manufacture certain components or the entire item, and Foxconn farms out work to other ODM and OEM firms, usually in Taiwan with plants in China as is usual – and between Apple and those Chinese workers are the Taiwanese R&D guys, the designers, the office workers, the programmers, the hardware, software and firmware engineers. And inside of those components are semiconducting wafers and similar technology, which is probably produced by TSMC, which does its manufacturing in Taiwan with workers who a.) aren't treated like slaves and b.) need and appreciate having the job.

    So those engineers and R&D guys in Taiwan work in offices and want and need their jobs. They work long hours, longer than I'd want to work, but otherwise live lives that honestly are not that different from yours or mine – they buy apartments (nobody but farmers buy houses in Taiwan), cars, TVs, nice computers, smartphones and live lives that would truly look familiar to most of us. The best ones are very well-paid and enjoy the fruits of their hard work (which is how it should be). They almost all have Master's degrees or even PhDs. These jobs support people and families. They're a massive sector – possibly the biggest sector – of the economy in Taiwan.

    Their offices also employ cafe workers (most of them have shops and restaurants on-site), HR folks, IT departments (you'd be amazed at how a group of specialized engineers working in groundbreaking semiconductor wafer technology can stare at a Powerpoint projector and all go "Huh? I dunno why it's not working!"), secretaries, receptionists and all manner of support staff – many of them women, you should know – who are paid…well, if not fairly, then at least more fairly than workers in China – and who want and need those jobs just as you want and probably need yours.

    If people stopped buying electronics, they'd be striking a blow for worker's rights in China, yes, but also raising the unemployment rate in Taiwan among white collar workers (and blue-collar ones, too – as I said, TSMC does its manufacturing in Taiwan). There's an entire city in Taiwan called Hsinchu, outside of which is Hsinchu Science Park – an office park the size of another city, which would start to look like an Asian Detroit.

    I know this because I live in Taiwan and work in corporate training and English teaching (which one I do at any given client site depends on their needs). I've been to the offices of these companies – not Foxconn specifically but other ones – and taught these folks. I live in Taipei and commute a few times a week by bullet train to Hsinchu (that bullet train, by the way? A HUGE chunk of its profit comes from business visitors to Hsinchu Science Park. It would probably go defunct if people stopped because there was no more business), take taxis through this massive science park and teach in these places.

    They're good people, they're hardworking people, and while they're concerned about workers in China (they really are), their hope is more that China will develop as Taiwan has, democracy and revolution will come, workers will demand better treatment and companies will have to give it to them. Of course they won't – they'll just pack up and move to Africa or wherever and exploit workers there instead.

    These guys are not asking Americans to stop buying electronics: in fact, their livelihoods depend on such sales. It is important to remember that if boycotting does strike a serious economic blow, it won't just be for workers' rights in China.

    It will also be against office workers earning a (somewhat) fair wage* in Taiwan, who will find themselves in dire economic straits. It'd be no different than if you lost your job.

    Oh, and my job too, because my job depends on those office workers needing business skills coaching and improved English. If those guys don't have jobs and the companies slash training budgets, then I'm unemployed, too.

    So we all feed off the system.

    I wrote a blog post (you can find it a few posts down if you click through my name, I won't link it directly) on how I feel about this and what I try to do about it. I won't go into that here.

    *I do think salaries in Taiwan could be higher for the hours these guys put in, but PPP is in Taiwan's favor so it's not really a top priority fight.

    3 agree
    • Thank you so much for this insight. It's hard to keep in mind how broad this subject can be, how far reaching it is. This is the issue I have with any kind of boycott, the one I wrestle with. Is no job better than a bad one? I think that's a Highly individual answer, depending on not just the person in question but also their situation as a whole. In a first world country there are many ways to get help if you have no job- food pantries, homeless shelters, etc. Not perfect systems, but something. But what about third world/developing countries? Are programs like this readily available? (I don't know, but it doesn't seem likely on the scale it might be needed.) So how do we support these workers in pushing for positive changes in their working conditions? What's the most effective way of backing them up?

      0 agree
      • That's just it – the Chinese workers have "bad" jobs (which, it could be argued, are better than no jobs) but the Taiwanese ones don't: their jobs are good, among the most sought-after in the country. Boycotting would mean cutting bad jobs AS WELL AS good ones.

        In most of Asia, there are fewer social safety nets. I can't speak for China but there is basic welfare in Taiwan and there are charities. It's expected that if you fall on hard times, your family will support you as much as they can (this doesn't always work out, but it is a cultural mainstay). There is universal healthcare with provisions for the very poor who can't pay the basic premiums in Taiwan, too.

        1 agrees
        • Gotcha. To refine my ultimate question: How do we support workers with "bad" jobs in improving their circumstance while not putting Everyone out of work? I absolutely understand that it is a potential 'tossing the baby out with the bathwater' scenario sometimes when it comes to boycotting, but I'm at a loss for another clear way to support workers from afar on this in a way I can really put my hand to….

          0 agree
    • Thanks for this perspective. "We all feed off the system."

      1 agrees
  21. Which, you know…to add to that. If these places all get hit, and the bullet train goes out of business, then everyone who works for Taiwan High Speed Rail is also out of work. The Japanese engineers who built it won't be re-hired to expand it, which will affect their lives. The taxi drivers who drive me and thousands of other visitors coming on business to the science park will lose their jobs because there won't be any customers. You probably don't care if the Starbucks and 7-11 inside one of these company complexes suffers, but you probably do care about the livelihood of the young Taiwanese woman who is working there as a barista or clerk, just as you might do or have done.

    I'll end with a story: every Wednesday I teach at one of these places* until fairly late at night, usually getting home at 11pm. Don't feel bad for me – it's 10:45am on a Thursday and I'm at home in my PJs so it all evens out. For other companies I'd take a taxi back to the bullet train to return to Taipei, but one of my students also lives in Taipei, so he drives me back. You might think that because he drives a Benz – which, by the way, super fun to ride in – and can afford an apartment with a great city view and an interior decorator to make that apartment beautiful, and give his son (still a baby) a good life, that it doesn't matter how your spending affects him. But it does – he worked his butt off for years to get his PhD at the best university in Taiwan. One of his coworkers got his at MIT. Smart guys, basically. While I was traveling the world in my twenties, he was putting his nose to the grindstone to work his way to a comfortable life, and I say all the more power to him. Sure, he'd survive if he couldn't have a Benz or hire a decorator (that decorator, by the way? Has work because people like my student create the technology that makes your video streaming work), but it would also mean not being able to provide as well for his kid. And, honestly, how is it fair for him to have worked his way to where he is and then find himself receiving unemployment checks because nobody's hiring…because nobody's buying? It'd be no more fair than if it happened to you.

    I don't expect too much sympathy for a guy with a Benz and an interior decorator, but hey, he's the guy responsible for your ability to stream movies on your phone, and he's a super nice, and very humble and generous, person. I begrudge him nothing. I don't want him to lose his job.

    And, while some people further their education out of passion for what they do, it's often tempered by economic goals. While I am sure that student is passionate about the kind of work he does, if there weren't many chances at good jobs in that field, he would have likely not gotten his PhD in engineering (I'm not sure which subfield he studied initially). Everyone else would feel the same way, and we'd have nobody to improve and innovate on current technology.

    It would not matter if you were willing to pay more for your electronics, as many of us are (I am) in order to see that the people assembling them are treated fairly – because there wouldn't be any specialized engineers to design new things. We wouldn't have new things.

    Just something to think about when we talk about doing what we can for workers' rights. I completely agree that factory labor in China needs to be treated better (and my students agree, too) but it's worth it to consider collateral issues.

    *even though the non-disclosure agreements I usually have to sign don't say anything about mentioning that I work here or there, they do mention talking about internal business and especially R&D. While I doubt anything I say here violates those agreements, I don't want to take any chances.

    2 agree
  22. Any of you guys familiar with Velocity Micro?

    I went with one of their desktops three years ago because I had been going through computers way too fast – I was impressed by their warranty (4 years), flexibility (virtually everything can be easily upgraded), and their 100% base in the US (even tech support). I still love it (it out-performs my brand new work computer) and it was only a bit more expensive – worth every penny!

    Granted, no idea on their sustainability (all tech is generally bad for the environment, right?), but I like to think that its longevity is a step in the right direction!

    0 agree
  23. Two points on this:

    1. Make yourself heard. Write letters. Or e-mails. Complain. Make your opinion public.

    2. I remember there was a giant uproar in Europe over cheap clothing made in India, and eventually the tax exception for Indian fabric was removed. What most of these "world-saving" people did not know was that buying a sewing machine and sewing clothes was virtually the only solution for many poor women to avoid arranged marriage and an unhappy life. The little money they earned was enough to live and maybe even feed their families, and this was taken away from them upon the protest of those worried about "poor working conditions".

    5 agree
  24. I'm not sure if anyone put this link on the other post, but this was sent to me by a friend who works for an NGO, and gave me a lot of food for thought:

    http://slaveryfootprint.org/

    I think it's relevant here, because although I thought I was doing really well (vegetarian, buying local produce, second hand and fairtrade clothes), it was the electronics that really made a big difference here. Anyway, give it a go.

    1 agrees

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