Ignorance is bliss, that’s what they say. After taking two years worth of courses dedicated to my Managing for Sustainability degree, I’ll be the first to tell you my academia “enlightenment” has me constantly overwhelmed with paranoia and guilt. Seriously. Whether it be driving my car to Weis and knowing I just put five pounds of carbon dioxide into the beautiful rural Pennsylvania air or knowing the iPhone I broke at a frat party last year is probably sitting in an e-waste pile bigger than my house, leaching toxins into the water supply of Guiyu, I feel like I’m living this nightmare I can’t stop perpetuating. What gets me through life, or at least not retreating into the Maine woods to live a nomadic blissful life of solitude like the North Pond Hermit once did, is doing what everybody else does. Turn a blind eye. Our society is a master at seeing only what we want to see. Adopting this out of sight, out of mind mentality is so easy especially when your biggest concerns as college student is keeping up in school, fitting in to the social scene and how much you can charge to you AmEx before your parents yell at you. But everything we own, whether it’s our Apple laptops or our socks, has a history. There’s a web of hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who collected materials, refined them, manufactured and transported a finished product to our doorsteps. The weird thing is we don’t even think about them, or really even care about them.
Mike Daisey’s story of his experiences at Foxconn and Shenzhen wasn’t anything short of fascinating. The depth of what he committed to experience first hand things usually we only read about is impressive. His firsthand descriptions and reactions were so captivating that I felt like a fly on the wall. But as I think about his reaction in retrospect, I would expect anyone with any sense of an ethical conscience to have the same reaction. Extreme secrecy and the lack of transparency regarding emissions, energy stats, resource sourcing and work conditions are the most irresponsible qualities Apple possesses. Yet obsessed with the clean and hip image Apple products have carved out in our society, and I say this while I’m looking around the library surrounding by at least ten Apple laptops plus my MacBook Air, we as consumers tend to look past these qualities. If everyone is accepting the answer “I am not allowed to say” from Siri concerning her manufactured home, maybe being apathetic about the situation is our only coping mechanism as a society. Or maybe we truly are myopic in relation to the people who are living an Orwell nightmare to please us as consumer. As Daisey pointed out, we all know most of our stuff comes from China, but how many people actually care?
Like Mike Daisey, I always conceptualized every Apple product I have ever bought being assembled by shiny machines in a very clean factory. Never did I expect to have a “handmade” iPhone. What a strange concept. To think that I wasn’t the first person to touch my iPhone when it came out of its pristine white box makes me feel cheated. But even though I now am enlightened of Foxconn’s normative sixteen hour days, the possibility in the process of making my iPad, someone deformed their hand or an underage worker cleaned my iPhone’s screen, what should I do? Even if I boycott Apple products for the rest of my life, HP, Sony and a number of other companies subcontract Foxconn to manufacture their products. Should we all ban electronics? Should we form an activist group? The answers to these questions remain unanswerable and will continue to be unanswerable until our society as a whole decides not to be apathetic to situations that we are directly responsible for. Sure, NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof argues the conditions Foxconn workers are experiencing is a right of passage economies necessary to grow from secondary to tertiary markets, but as we’re sitting passively on the sidelines after exporting manufacturing overseas without “exporting the protections” that we have labeled ethical as a society. Apple releases their yearly labor report on their website but Apple also has the perfect storm of resources and publicity to set the standards for US corporations in terms of social responsibility and they continue not to. The United States has so much consumer leverage, and with one of the highest concentrations of the 1% of people in the world that are lucky enough to have a college education and be aware of unethical company practices, we as a society continue to be apathetic in taking action despite our knowledge.