Why Apple’s Supply Chain Problem is Such a Big Deal
If you clicked this link, your thought was likely, “Bryant’s a fanboy, let’s see what kind of spin he puts on this horrific topic.” Or, you might be someone who has tweeted to me, emailed to me, or trolled my Facebook timeline with this NY Times article released the other day.
The gist of the article is this: Apple employs hundred of thousands of poor Chinese workers who spend their entire lives connecting cables inside of iPhones for very little pay. The article goes further than that though, too. The article makes the pronouncement that Apple cares very little about the working conditions of their supply chain and you should feel guilty for owning an iPhone, iPad, or iPod. Here’s a taste:
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.
Tim Cook, the newly appointed CEO, made it clear in an email to employees that he was ‘outraged’ by the accusations that the article made and was deeply offended. It’s not hard to see why…The New York Times and Apple have mostly had a very cordial relationship. The NYT’s website is included in iOS’s default bookmarks and Steve often visited their site first when demoing a new product. The Times was quick to adopt the iPad as a way of releasing their content and the relationship has worked for the betterment of both companies. Everything seemed fine.
Even today, the BSR, who is quoted heavily throughout the Times’s piece refuted much of its claims. I suspect that we haven’t seen anywhere near the end of this.
As a point of reference, here’s a short clip of Steve Jobs reacting to the Wall Street Journal’s questions regarding the suicides and suicide attempts by Foxconn employees a while back:
Again, we haven’t heard the end of this. As we shouldn’t.
The poor workers. They’re worked hard, worse than many Americans will ever work, and when Apple wants to lower production costs and raise quality of the products, something’s got to give. The media is beginning to claim that the cost of these two desires is human lives and well being. In fact, the NYT titled their piece, “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.”
It’s linkbait, but it starts a good conversation. Why is this so important? Why does Apple take the heat?
Sure, it’s because theyre bigger than everyone else. That’s what got Nike in so much trouble. Sure, it’s because they are a hugely profitable company. They made more in profit than Google brought in total last quarter. Sure, it’s because people love their products. But I think this has become a bigger deal for another reason.
I think it’s because their products speak a bit of hope.
Andy Crouch referred to this phenomenon when he spoke about the gospel that Steve Jobs preached in a piece immediately following Steve’s death. I don’t agree with the correlations that Andy drew throughout the entire piece, but his general thesis is good. Steve had a different, often better, way of envisioning how a human interacts with a product. (Andy’s piece comes off a bit harsh at times, though I know that Andy is an Apple fan because when I saw him speak live once he referred to his MacBook Pro as the true representation of ‘perfection’ on earth.)
Apple’s mindset has always been about Thinking Differently. Using a computer sucked until 1984 when the Macintosh was introduced. MP3 players sucked until 2001 when the iPod and iTunes made it possible to actually enjoy listening to digital music. Cell phones sucked until 2007 when the iPhone finally made a smart phone easy to use. Tablets sucked until 2010 when the iPad reimagined what a tablet was and how humans interact with it.
Steve’s quotes. Apple’s marketing campaigns. The products themselves. All of these presented nearly hyperbolic statements about what it was like to use an Apple computer and how much there was to love about them. Sites like “CultofMac.com” and documentaries like “Mac Heads” and terms like “fanboy” are signs of the effectiveness of this message. (I’ll admit, I often get accused of buying into the Apple gospel more than the Jesus Gospel. I’d argue that that might be because Apple is better at presenting it than our churches are right now, but that’s an argument for another day…)
When you use an iPhone, you fall in love with it. Or, most people do. Apple is no longer an electronic company; they become an ideology, a mindset, and a way of life. Apple has engrained this “Think Different” message into our understandings of who they are as a company. When we love their products, we want to believe that the truly are better than everyone else. In every single aspect.
Yet this Foxconn situation seems to be the same as everyone else. I remember getting in trouble at a young age and my first response was to say that ‘everyone else was doing it!’ To which my parents were quick to point out, “Perhaps, but you’re better than that.” These poor (literally) workers in these factories are indicative of what is wrong with the world we’re in and we’d like to think that Apple can rise above those problems. For God’s sake, they’ve risen above it with all of their products!
I hope Tim and Steve are (were ) right that they are actively working to take greater measures in treating their workers fairly. They’re certainly working to spread a good word about how much better they are than many other suppliers. I hope that what they say is true, is true, and that it will continue to get better quickly.
Apple has nearly $100 Billion in the bank. If there is one company who can actually Think Different when it comes to this type of labor ethics, it’s Apple. They have the means.
I’d like to see them turn this around. Not just politically. Not just through marketing. I’d like to see them make gigantic strides and stand up for the right and well being of humans.
Because that’s what Apple does. They Think Different.
Please, dear God, don’t let that thought leave with Steve.