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After listening to This American Life’s podcast last week, “Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory,” it served as a catalyst to thinking about social good and the use of technology. For those that didn’t listen, I’ll provide a brief synopsis but it’s definitely worth the 60 minute tune-in if you have the time. Mike Daisey reports on manufacturing plants in China, specifically Foxconn, one of the major factories tied to Apple products and a host of other companies that produce tech-saavy gear. While Daisey sheds light on a known but seemingly untouched and unchallenged topic regarding labor rights and working conditions in factories outside of the U.S., the commentary post-report also raises other interesting points that are worth confronting – the idea of sweatshops and their place within a developing country, and the benefit of factories that are less than ideal in general, within an economy that is struggling to survive and a community where mouths need to be fed. This American Life (TAL) spent weeks fact-checking Daisey’s findings, to the extent that they could, and while there were small revisions and confirmations on what the original, full story reported, most of the corrections were negligible. It’s not like they rescinded the whole report after looking into Daisey’s research; in fact, it just seemed to open up further discussion and the need to look into labor conditions and who is manufacturing the products we’ve come to rely on. These actions may inspire companies to become more transparent, publish best practices or adhere to corporate responsibility standards.

Thinking about labor laws and hearing TAL’s program did make me pause and gaze around my apartment wondering about where all my “things” were crafted. I’d recently visited this web site too, Slavery Footprint, designed as a survey that questions the user on how many items of a particular product they have in their home – including jewels/jewelry, sporting goods, and electronics; measures their levels of consumption – taking into account food/drink; and other variables such as gender, age, geographic location, and number of children. As you move through the survey you’re provided facts about natural resources in Africa, jewels in Burma and factories in Indonesia. So this, coupled with TAL’s program, planted some seeds of sustainability in my mind and got me wondering about my “stuff”, who makes it, and what I use it for.

I love technology. I use a computer everyday and not to mention it’s “made” by Apple. I don’t have an iPhone but it’s something I’m considering. All its applications and uses seem befit for an individual who’s trying to manage their schedule with ease and finesse in a culture where a constant stream of news / media / stimuli is omnipresent. But I got to wondering when does using technology compete with your other morals and values? What if you’re using your iPhone or PC to run a business focusing on sustainability, or nonprofit for at-risk youth, but the very materials that are helping local communities and the nonprofit you run, are actually provided by a business that works with a manufacturer that do not adhere to human rights standards and laws? What do you do then? How do you know when good business is actually good business? If Apple is telling the truth and they’re 100% transparent – working with factories that provide fair wages, insurance, and hours –  then there is nothing to think twice about, really. But what if it’s not Apple, or even technology we’re looking at but the more likely industries in which child labor and labor violations actually do occur – like clothing, or the environment. What if those beads I’m buying from a nonprofit organization, or company, are actually distributed by another buyer who acquires them by using underaged labor? Remember Greg Mortenson’s funds that were supposedly going to aid his nonprofit’s “programs” but were in fact helping support other unnecessary expenses (book tour)? Or that there were fabrications with the author’s actual endeavors that could not be verified and they were created to encourage funding for his organization, Central Asia Institute, and book sales? I’m getting slightly off track but what I’m posing is that what if the “social good” you’re doing for an organization is using the materials that are provided by a company that do not investigate those same practices and a cycle of supporting bad practices (unknowingly) is actually occurring?

I’m not usually so blatantly suspicious of corporations or organizations. I do question their practices, their assets, and where money is actually going (paychecks? programs? investments?), but I think in a world where economies appear to be crumbling and hanging on by mere threads (Europe!), or burgeoning like untamed beasts (South Korea!), we  need to be mindful of what we’re using, who’s endorsing it, and not take for granted a campaign or corporation who profess their mission supports social justice. There are so many charities nowadays that while the supply isn’t necessarily greater than the demand / need, we shouldn’t jump on board with the first organization who meets our needs. I think there is a strong argument for quality vs. quantity in this case. Yes, competition in many markets is fierce and even nonprofits need marketing departments on where to best communicate their mission, but doesn’t community, cooperation and collaboration make for building better societies vs. just getting the job done quick without breaking the bank?

The purpose of this post has come to be two-fold. One – where are our dollars / Euros / pennies / pounds going? And, two – how do we approach a situation when a nonprofit / NGO is obviously working to address a community need, but some of the services or materials they’re using are produced in an environment that contradicts their morals and values? Or what if we’re using one of those products -a phone, tablet, clothing, materials…- to run our own social enterprise?

In the spirit of these thoughts, the following images represent the direction of this post – who makes our toys? Who handles the goods that end up in our home? A machine? A person? And where are they made? In a country? A factory? A village where the materials can be traced all the way down to the very roots?

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2 thoughts on “made in…

  1. Great post Sue. And something I’ve thought about on occasion. Particularly for things that might not occur to us to even think about where they’re coming from — like chocolate. Most people have no idea about the issues and conflict (ehem, child labor/slavery) that surrounds the cultivation of 80% of the world’s chocolate.

    And then, I am sometimes even sceptical about Fair Trade Certified — just because it claims the raw materials were acquired fairly, how can we really know? There’s so much corruption and abuse that can occur from point A to point D.

    And then like you mention, what about organizations who are working toward a good but employing services or materials that don’t actually align with their beliefs? Do the ends outweigh the means? And, is there a way to honestly avoid some of those potential conflicts — let’s say an NGO has to use computers to run their day to day business, is it even possible to secure a computer in which we can confidently say ALL of the parts were manufactured in “fair and safe” circumstances?

    It brings me to the “made in America” challenge — with the US economy being what it is, Good Morning America has done some explorations with families into evaluating what is in their homes and where it’s from and then removing anything not fully made in America. And then looking at what the cost would be to replace it with all American made stuff (and compare the cost to what the value/cost of their original stuff was). Most of the time, their homes end up almost completely empty and it costs significantly more to buy everything USA, and they often can’t replace some items.

    Which leads me back to the thought that of ends outweighing the means. If it would be cost prohibitive to run their operations and/or the resources just aren’t available without some level of conflict with the overall values of the organization, what’s the NGO/Non profit to do?

    Some organizations actually have the capability to “create” their own services to fill this gap in some capacities. For instance, the Catholic Church offers their employees 401K options but its important to them that they and their employees’ money be invested in corporations that are in line with Catholic moral and social teachings — this includes fair labor practices (as far as they can reasonably assess), and other important issues.In response, the Catholic community has created a few investment firms who thoroughly research every corporation with an IPO to ensure those they incorporate into their portfolios align with these teachings.

    But let’s be real, most NGOs/non profits don’t have the resources or influence for such things.

    And, it does beg the question too, for employees in countries with these work conditions — is it better for them to suffer these conditions than NOT have the jobs/money for their family? Not that this justifies such treatment or conditions, but it’s just the honest question of which is worse/would be more devistating for those people and their economy? Are these “necessary evils?” for which solutions are for more complex than we can fully address, especially in an increasingly global economy? (As well as an increasingly consumeristic society?)

    Tough questions for tough situations.

  2. Exactly — well put, tough questions for tough situations. This situation and these questions share a resemblance to annual reports and findings that surface every year about coffee and wine – one year a journal publishes research stating oenophiles can have 1 glass a day, which they purport to be good for ; or coffee drinkers should have no less than 4 cups if they want to stave off the risk of . One year one report says one thing, the next year, another. The trouble I find with the factories in China, Apple’s reports and labor conditions in general is that no one really knows who’s telling the truth. The media has been known to come out with one finding and then claim it was untrue later. I think with the case here and Foxconn/factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, it’s easier to verify these findings because we can’t claim these injustices are different on a case by case basis. If they’re occuring in a factory, they’re occuring. With medical reports things are known to vary person to person. I digress.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s really hard to trace your product, and its 100 components back to its original source. How can we address these “Made in…” cases with better transparency without feeling like we’re a) spending twice as much money b)spending a day to research and c) hitting our head against a wall because finding the true origin of a product is unachievable?

    By the way, follow-up on NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html?_r=1&hp=&pagewanted=all. I’m about 3/4 of the way through…

    Thanks for sharing your views!

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