Reporters' Roundtable: The human cost of gadgets

Can consumers do anything to ensure that their smartphones, cameras, and gadgets are ethically made? Our experts discuss.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

Editor's note: This post originally published yesterday before the round table took place. It was updated today with a new time stamp and the video interview.

Did you ever wonder where the raw materials for your phone or camera or laptop came from, or who assembled it? Popular stories this year about the working conditions at smartphone manufacturer Foxconn finally brought to light one piece of this puzzle. Workers there, stories say, suffer not just low wages but physically and psychologically unsafe conditions, which have led to a rash of suicides at the plant.

But even before your gadget is assembled, its raw materials must be pulled out of the earth. Some of these materials, notably tantalum, which is used in capacitors, are mined in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Income from these mines directly funds warring groups; ongoing fighting over resources leaves civilians terrorized and brutalized.

There are things you can do to push companies toward building more ethical and humane products. That's what we're covering today. Our guests are Aaron Hall, a policy analyst for the Center for American Progress and the Raise Hope for Congo project; and Global Post reporter Kathleen McLaughlin, who's been working on the investigative series Silicon Sweatshops since 2009.

Watch this: Ep. 51: The human cost of gadgets


iTunes (MP3)
iTunes (320x180)
iTunes (640x360)
Podcast RSS (MP3)
Podcast RSS (320x180)
Podcast RSS (640x360)

Show notes and talking points

Let's start at the bottom of the supply chain: Materials. Aaron, a brief primer on conflict materials in Congo?

Then, assembly. Kathleen, explain what Foxconn is, and what the issue is?

While not the only company to be part of these issues, Apple is in the limelight due to its shiny brand image. In June things hit the media in a big way... Steve jobs said regarding conflict materials,

We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem. (June 30)

And regarding Foxconn, at the D8 conference,

We are all over this. Foxconn is not a sweatshop. It's a factory -- but my gosh, they have restaurants and movie theaters... but it's a factory. But they've had some suicides and attempted suicides -- and they have 400,000 people there. The rate is under what the US rate is, but it's still troubling." (June 1)

Comment? What's happened since June?

What new or potential laws address this in the U.S.? Elsewhere?

How long have these problems been generally known? How long before that do they go back?

Electronics is hardly the only industry plagued by issues of conflict, ethics, pollution, or human rights. How have other industries (apparel, food, energy) handled these problems successfully?

Please address this email from a Roundtable listener, Peter:

I am part of the iPod generation and I feel like we get a lot of criticism for blindly purchasing things. What can we do about this? obviously everybody's not going to stop buying iPod's, laptops etc. Anything other than demanding change from the manufactures and our government?

Let's say, for sake of argument, that a big electronics company like Apple or Dell or HP wants to sell certified ethical consumer electronics. What can it do?

What are some positive examples?

What would happen if our electronics were made in completely humane conditions? And with responsibly mined or recycled materials?

How do consumers demand the transparency you two are espousing?

Wrap-up: Where to go for more info. Aaron, then Kathleen.

Related reading:

CNET News:
Chinese authorities probe iPhone worker's death
Sony, Nokia express concern over Foxconn suicides
Foxconn raising factory salaries again
Effort to trace 'conflict minerals' in electronics

Global Post:
Silicon Sweatshops: Shattered dreams
Disposable workforce
A promising model
Foxconn refutes accusations

New York Times:
Death by Gadget
Steve Jobs Statement on Conflict Minerals