Can you buy the iPhone 5S or 5C with a clear conscience?
Can you buy the iPhone 5S or 5C with a clear conscience?
Apple has arguably done more than its rivals to improve conditions at factories and reduce its environmental footprint
Can I buy the new iPhone with a clear conscience?
In the leap from drawing board to circuit board, Apple's sleek, polished designs undergo many processes that the company cannot fully control. With colourful cases and a friendly price, Apple is promising that its first low-cost iPhone will "brighten everyone's day". But reports about conditions at the factories subcontracted to make Apple products jar with the upbeat image. Workers making the handset's cases are being asked to stand for 12-hour shifts, with just two 30-minute breaks, six days a week, investigators for the non-profit organisation China Labor Watch have found. The factory is owned by American contract manufacturer Jabil Circuit, which along with Apple has sent experts to investigate.
Hasn't Apple already promised to improve practices at factories?
Targeted more than any other consumer electronics company over the treatment of its workers, Apple has arguably done more than any of its rivals to tackle the problem. It has been publishing audits of its suppliers for the past seven years, and is now working with independent campaigner the Fair Labor Association to inspect facilities.
Suppliers that employ children can have their contracts terminated. Last year, Apple cut off a Chinese circuit board producer found to be employing 74 children under the age of 16. It also reported a local labour agency that had falsified records to make children appear older than they were, and the business had its license suspended and was fined by local authorities.
Children found to be illegally employed at Apple factories must be handed back to their families. Suppliers must also provide money to compensate for their lost earnings, and further funds for their education.
Apple has set a maximum of 60 hours of overtime per week at its factories, and its audits have shown 92% compliance. Apple carried out 393 audits at facilities covering 1.5 million workers for its last annual supplier responsibility report.
It also has initiatives against bonded labour, forbids mandatory pregnancy tests, and works to prevent Chinese students being coerced into factory work in order to graduate from further education courses.
What about the materials?
Factory conditions are not the only ethical minefield when it comes to smartphones. Most of the world's known supply of Coltan, a metallic ore used to manufacture the circuitry found in most electronic gadgets, comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. National parks have been destroyed to mine it, and proceeds from sales of the mineral have been used to fund bribes and illegal militia.
Apple is committed to using conflict-free minerals. It asks suppliers to confirm their smelter sources, and is working to identify trusted smelters which source conflict-free minerals.
Are Apple's products environmentally friendly?
Like any other large manufacturer, Apple's carbon footprint is yeti sized. In 2012, it was responsible for almost 31m tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Better design and planning have reduced emissions per dollar of Apple revenue by 22% since 2008. Its data centres run on 100% renewable energy.
Are there any ethical alternatives to the iPhone?
The reality is that Apple products can be traced back to the same mineral mines, parts makers and assembly plants as most other smartphone brands. Nokia, Amazon, Sony and Samsung have all been customers of Foxconn, where the conditions under which the iPhone was being produced were first exposed. Conditions at the factories used by Apple in China will be similar to those used by other brands.
A Dutch company called Fairphone has had some success in crowd-funding what it believes will be the first entirely ethical smartphone. After securing 14,537 pre-orders for its €325 phones, which customers have paid for upfront, Fairphone will go into production in time for Christmas. Based on Google's Android operating system, it looks similar to a Samsung Galaxy handset, and prototypes will be on show at a pop-up shop in London's Soho from 18 September.
Each bag of tin and coltan used to make a Fairphone will be labelled and tracked on its journey to the smelter. The phones themselves will, however, be made in China, at a factory owned by Chang Hong, which makes TVs and smartphones for the Chinese market. Fairphone will carry out regular audits to ensure the legal limit of 60 hours per week per worker is respected. It has also set up a fund to top up pay so that employees receive not just a minimum wage, but a living wage. However, Fairphone admits that with its small order of 25,000 phones, it cannot dictate worker conditions at a factory it does not own.
One way around the problem is to bring production to countries where workers are treated more fairly. The Moto X smartphone, the first Motorola handset entirely designed and produced since its acquisition by Google, is largely assembled at a plant in Texas. Its parts and materials are sourced from all over the world, but like Apple, Motorola is identifying ethical smelters for tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold. While Google cannot make a cast iron claim to be producing entirely ethical phones, by bringing manufacturing home, to a plant that it owns, it can do more to improve working conditions than the small armies of auditors scanning factory floors in Shenzhen.
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