On weekend mornings, I have a routine. I wake up, shuffle down my street to pick up an everything bagel with butter, and stop at my favorite coffee shop for a caffeine fix. It’s one of those hip places Louis C.K. jokes about — you know, with the local art on the walls and an abundance of bearded men in beanies.
Coffee there costs about 20-40% more than the coffee from the surrounding bodegas or a chain like Dunkin’ Donuts. I drink it because I think it tastes better; the fact that it’s Fair Trade is a bonus.
Every time I step in there, it’s filled with people fiddling with electronics: freelancers tapping away on MacBooks, people in line checking their iPhones and baristas keeping a careful eye on the iPod. Their electronics are not Fair Trade. In fact, if you’ve read the New York Times story from yesterday or listened to the This American Life episode from earlier this month, you know that gadgets are often made in pretty harsh working conditions.
According to a study by Oekom Research, a ratings agency with a focus on sustainable investment, 42% of consumer electronics manufacturers are guilty of violating labor rights — far worse than the next two offenders: textiles (30%) and mining (24%).
Apple has taken the brunt of recent criticism, but don’t think that by boycotting the iPhone you’ll be doing workers in China any favors. Foxconn, the company under the most scrutiny for its labor practices, makes products for a huge swath of the consumer electronics industry including Nokia, Samsung and many others.
The truth is that consumers don’t really have a good option when it comes to buying smartphones and tablets. Why is that? Why is there Fair Trade coffee and Fair Trade clothing and Fair Trade bath products, but no Fair Trade electronics?
I decided to call Heather Franzese, director of new businesses at Fair Trade USA, to try and figure out if the idea of Fair Trade electronics was a plausible one.
“I’ve been working closely with the apparel industry during the last five years. I’ve spent a lot of time in factories in Asia and it’s a similarly complex supply chain,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s possible to ensure decent working conditions.”
Fair Trade USA’s research says that the most people are willing to pay for an “ethical and sustainable product” is 10-20% more than a conventionally made product. “Ethical” means that workers make enough to feed their families, send their kids to school and afford basic healthcare, plus they have the ability to report poor working conditions to management anonymously.
The cheapest iPad 2 costs $500. That means theoretically that Apple could build a Fair Trade iPad 2 and some conscientious consumer would be willing to pay $600 for it.
But would people really pay $600 for an item they could previously buy for $500? I highly doubt it. Paying an extra 20 cents for coffee or $5 for a T-shirt is one thing; spending an extra $100 when you would already be stretching your budget with $500 is another.
Regardless, there’s very little incentive for Apple to make Fair Trade products. The company just reported sales of $46.3 billion and profits of $13.1 billion — the best quarter it’s ever had.
One of the requirements for Fair Trade to start a feasibility study on an industry — a breakdown of labor problems and required solutions — is that the organization has to either be approached by a company that wants to produce an “ethical and sustainable” product or large consumer group that demands it.
Unlike my Fair Trade coffee, there isn’t much clamoring for a Fair Trade iPad. In fact, it’s consumers’ insatiable demand for newer and better and cheaper products that incentivizes Foxconn to keep a massive workforce crowded together in dorms, ready to work 12-hour shifts at a moment’s notice if Apple isn’t satisfied with a product.
“I think that time has come for consumers to look in a little more detail at how their electronics are made,” says Franzese.
The truth is Fair Trade and similar organizations won’t get involved unless consumers speak up en masse. When the organization finally decided to look into the clothing industry, it took five years to get from the feasibility study to the licensing and promotion of Fair Trade clothing.
Could we see a similar move in the consumer electronics industry; say, Fair Trade smartphones and tablets by 2017?
Maybe. One sure thing is that consumers will not become technological Luddites. We are used to our fancy new gadgets and we’re not going to stop buying them. But if there’s a big enough market of people fed-up with reading story after story like the Times‘ recent Apple exposé and they make their voices heard, who knows: Maybe some company will jump in to fill the void.