Dear Apple: I want to take a break.
I love you, but I want to take a break. I really don’t want to see you for a while.
Everyone in my generation looks up to you like that cool older sister or brother we wish we had. In middle school, we stored our bootlegged mp3s in your iPods to tune out our parents. During college, your smartphone made my hectic student life that much easier and fun, chock full of (sometimes racist) emojis. Then, as we started our jobs, you gifted us with a slim portable notebook that packed power.
You and I seem to have upgraded together in lockstep. Oh, you have a watch now, you say?
Well, here’s the latest upgrade I’m seeking, and I don’t think you can come along: I want to purchase products and know that I’m not contributing to human destruction.
Is that too much to ask?
I’m not going to be naïve here: I know a lot of the things I’ve bought, probably in the tens of thousands of dollars at this point, came from cruel, subpar conditions that I will never know about.
But Apple, you’re special. You’re leading the way.
Don’t get me wrong, Apple. I’ve read through your environmental responsibility and supplier responsibility progress reports, and I find the level of detail to be unparalleled. You’ve made some real improvements in just the last year, whether it’s investigating allegations of benzene/n-hexane exposure, or cracking down on third-party recruiters, aka ‘bonded servitude’. You seem to be providing educational opportunities for your workers. You’ve upped the # of audits (though it’s not even clear if occasional audits/tracking guarantee anything, in the face of coercion by managers). You’ve humbly stated, “We can still do better. And we will.”
Still, I want a break. We need to go on a break.
I don’t want to buy a new Apple product (I will buy used ones if I have to) until I think you’ve really demonstrated that you have a plan in place to eradicate harsh working conditions and environmental damage from your supply chain. Not just “standards,” but a plan that tells us about exactly what problems we’re up against, and lays out concrete steps with soft deadlines and goals.
I don’t want to see another report where undercover journalists posing as workers suffer abuses in your factories (1 hr BBC doc from 4 months ago)# or watch another video about benzene/n-hexane poisonings (10 min doc). I don’t want to see you deliver reassurances only after someone has pulled back the leather Michael Kors case to reveal what’s going on.
Most of all, I don’t want to see you brag about being the tallest midget# when confronted by allegations of abuse:
We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to ensure fair and safe working conditions. —Apple, December 2014
That doesn’t sound like leadership.
Whenever I think about Apple’s factory workers, I think about my own mother, who worked in an electric generator factory on the outskirts of Shanghai between the ages of 18–28.# It was the Cultural Revolution. She never made it to high school, because Chairman Mao had shut down all the schools two years before, in 1966. Then, he sent all of China’s children to factories and the countryside for 10 years. He tore families apart. My mother lived in the factory dorms with all the other workers, some much younger than herself. I can’t help but wonder if her incessant coughing (ever since I can remember) and asthma derive from occupational exposures.
Today’s Apple workers—and the many others making all our devices, our toys, our clothes, our lawn chairs—are not so different, almost fifty years later. They’re still working on the edges of Shanghai, in the shadows of a now-glittering metropolis. They’re still foregoing their educations and leaving their families behind to migrate across the country. They’re still sacrificing some of their best adult years in these factories, and risking their health and their lives in the process.
What I don’t think Americans understand is how stultifying mass production factory work can be in a developing country like China. It’s not just a job. You don’t have a real home to go to when your 12-hour shift is over. These young adult workers live in shared dormitories (8–12 to a tiny room, budget hostel-style), and some only see their families once a year. They sometimes labor for 16 days straight#, assembling our beloved phones and computers (and now watches). They are exhausted.#
Unless you personally know someone who grew up in a third world country and never finished high school, I can’t begin to explain what this kind of experience does to you.
Here’s the big irony of the tallest midget argument: Apple is not a company that succeeds by being slightly better than the competition. It wants to be in its own class, and it has the design smarts to get there. It is there.
That’s why it’s reaping a 69% profit on its latest iPhones, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. About $200 goes into each 16GB iPhone 6 (this includes R&D, assembly, parts), and Apple takes the rest of the $649 pricetag in profits. Of that $200, labor costs are an estimated $5. A higher estimate puts labor costs at 4% of gross revenues ($26 for that 16 GB iPhone 6).
Five to twenty-six dollars.
Now, some argue that Apple should apportion some of its $18 billion profits to ensure better working conditions.
Well, you know what Apple? You can keep your bazillion in profits if that’s what really matters to you. I don’t want to get into a debate about how investing in a humane supply chain would hurt consumers or be irresponsible to shareholders. I don’t claim to be an expert in how you should allocate your capital and resources. I don’t even care about the $13,800,000,000 in taxes that you’ve apparently avoided.
Instead, I’ll ask this: How much more do I need to pay to ensure that workers in your factories are not working insane hours and putting their lives at risk, that the tin in my phone is not coming from child-labored mud mines, that your suppliers are not dumping industrial fluids into the the groundwater and nearby rivers, and that people along your supply chain have opportunities to mature and develop?
How much more do I need to pay to see an actual gameplan that both acknowledges specific problems and proposes a roadmap towards solutions and accountability?
I’ll pay more. Set up your own production plants and metal recycling operations if that’s what it takes to get this done. If it’s another $5, $26, or even $100 or $200 — whatever the amount — I will try my best to save my money to shore up that difference. I don’t want anyone to go through anything like what my mother went through because of my dollars, if I can help it.
I just want to remind you: you’re Apple. You’re a pathbreaker. And right now, you’re in a market position to really think different.
Bye for now.
Hats off to Larry Lee for artfully translating this essay to Chinese.
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