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CNET's iPhone series and why we decided to write it

commentary Jay Greene traveled to China to trace how an iPhone is made and ultimately recycled. We hope he got you thinking about how all consumer electronics are made.

The dormitories at Foxconn's Zhengzhou plant.
Jay Greene/CNET

Think for a second about the people you don't think about.

They go to work in giant factories in Chinaby the hundreds of thousands to make consumer electronics such as your iPhone. They work long hours for wages we'd consider unconscionable, but for many of them may well be aspirational. They've left their homes to travel around China as digital age migrant workers, helping Foxconn and other contract manufacturers fulfill orders during their busiest seasons. They live in tight quarters in huge dormitories. And at the end of the month, they hope to have enough money to send home to their families.

Sometimes, after paying for food and dormitory rent, that doesn't happen. So they work overtime to get ahead. And they're often reluctant to make waves. For all they may not like about what they're doing, there are plenty of other people who would happily take that work, and other countries -- where workers would be paid even less -- that would welcome those factories with open arms.

From rocks to recycling: The life of an iPhone

Over two days, we looked at the human and environmental toll of creating iPhones.

Here's another thought: Should we be worried about the environmental damage caused by the chase for the raw materials that go into these electronics, or what happens when we toss those gadgets away for something better?

That's for you to decide.

This week, we published a series of articles about the production of the iPhone. We followed the path of an iPhone's life and death because it's iconic. Yes, a similar story could be told of many consumer electronics devices. But Apple is the unquestioned heavyweight of today's consumer high-tech industry. It's also among the most aggressive companies when it comes to controlling its supply chain and it is making efforts to improve working conditions at the facilities of its contract manufacturers. Indeed, with Apple, we may have given you the best-case scenario for contract manufacturing in China.

Hopefully, we coaxed you to think about what has to happen in order to fulfill 5 million orders of anything in one weekend, let alone a complex, stylish smartphone such as the iPhone 5.

We've been working on the series since April, and Jay Greene spent two weeks touring China to see firsthand whatever he could. He traveled to five cities and met with dozens of workers, activists, and academics.

He met people like Li Yue, a college student who was on her way to a Foxconn plant in Taiyuan, where riots broke out over the weekend. It's still not clear why an estimated 2,000 workers rioted, putting 40 people in the hospital. And he met a woman who would only give her family name, Ma, because she didn't want to get in trouble with her employer. She left her 1-year-old daughter in the care of her mother about 130 miles away so she could get work at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou. As for her husband, he's working somewhere else in southern China, but she's not quite sure where.

(Story continues below.)

Mark Hobbs/CNET

As I write this commentary about our series, I think of so many historical parallels to what's happening today in the manufacturing of consumer electronics.

I'm reminded of Edward R. Murrow's 1960 expose on the life of America's migrant farm workers. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame" was a gut-wrenching look at the hopelessness of the migrant worker, following the harvest season from one temporary camp to another, living in squalor, uneducated, and little opportunity to improve their lives.

"The migrants have no lobby," Murrow ended the broadcast. "Only an enlightened, aroused, and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck."

Murrow and his collaborator, Fred Friendly, aired the show right after Thanksgiving to get folks thinking about who harvested the food they just ate. That was our thinking when we decided to run our series near the iPhone 5 launch. (No, we're not comparing ourselves to Murrow and Friendly. We do think running that piece at Thanksgiving was a great idea.) Just as "Harvest of Shame" wasn't about getting people to stop eating, we're not trying to convince you that buying that iPhone (or that Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC One X, or Motorola Droid Razr M) is a bad idea or that you should buy something else.

We simply wrote the series to shine a spotlight on the costs -- environmental and human -- of making a device millions the world over crave.

We looked at just a few pieces of the iPhone manufacturing process in putting together the articles for this project. But there are many, many other parts of the supply chain that invite legitimate questions. Bloomberg BusinessWeek, for example, published a cover story last month about the harsh labor conditions for mining tin, which is used in soldering in many products. Labor rights questions are routinely raised about the electronics supply chain in other parts of Asia, including Malaysia (PDF), where activists have focused on alleged mistreatment, including forced labor, of migrant workers. Public Broadcasting System's Frontline also produced a disturbing program in 2009 on electronic waste in Ghana.

There's no doubt Apple, in particular, has made strides in improving environmental standards for making its products. Over the years, it's reduced its product packaging, which not only lowers the amount of materials used but allows the company to ship more products per container. Even in the thornier area of workers rights, wages have climbed at some facilities where iPhones are made.

And yet, environmental and workplace concerns persist. So how should consumers feel about owning an iPhone or a Galaxy, or buying a new one? After all, we're pretty good in the West at feeling other people's plights. We do guilt well.

As I said, the iPhone shouldn't be alone among mobile phones in generating ethical angst. A Samsung supplier, we should add, was recently accused of employing workers younger than 16, a charge Samsung denied. Indeed, you don't have to be an Apple partisan to say other consumer electronics companies should thank Apple for taking the brunt of the criticism that most of the industry deserves. You'd be hard-pressed to find a mobile phone that doesn't use rare-earth minerals mined in China. Most of the factories in China that make so many of today's electronic devices operate with the same labor issues. And when you recycle your mobile phone, regardless of the brand, there's a chance it will eventually make its way to a developing country.

That's one reason why boycotting Apple and the iPhone, as some have suggested, doesn't make sense. Every smartphone faces similar issues. Are you going to give up modern communications?

So what's the answer? Maybe the best place to find one is at Apple. Since 2007, Apple has posted Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports on its Web site, detailing shortcomings of its suppliers and pledging to remedy any transgressions, including terminating contracts with vendors that violate its principles.

Workers at an electronics recycling operation in Guangzhou, China, separate plastic, metals, and wires as they pull apart computers. Jay Greene/CNET

"Apple is committed to the highest standards of social responsibility across our worldwide supply chain," the company states in the overview of the site. "We insist that all of our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes."

Apple can force change. When it requires higher standards for mining, for manufacturing, and for disposing of its products, its partners will respond. In fact, they already have. Wages, while still meager, are beginning to climb at Foxconn's Zhengzhou plant, increasing to 1,800 renminbi, about $283 a month from 1,550 renminbi, about $244.

If Apple and its vendors more aggressively address these issues, those changes will spread to the rest of industry. Other consumer electronics companies use the same partners to make their products. Improved working conditions and environmental standards won't just alter the lifecycle of an iPhone; they'll change the way all phones are made and dismantled.

Apple upended the industry when it introduced the iPhone five years ago. It has the opportunity to do it again.