What’s in a Brand?

Capitalism is a foul amoral creature. On one hand it rewards ingenuity, co-operation and a certain empathy needed to appeal to people to buy your products. On the other hand it rewards slave labour, wanton destruction of the environment and disgusting business practices such as planned obsolescence. It seems like an arms race, for every new regulation that is made (standard minimum wage) a new shady business practice is created (outsource production to underdeveloped countries were labour is cheap).

Take Apple for instance. They came under a lot of scrutiny because the image of their brand – globally conscious, user friendly, simple and easy to use – came into direct conflict with their business practices. They outsourced the production to Foxconn, a company in China who runs factories with appalling conditions. I cannot stress how atrocious these conditions were. 12 hour shifts of back breaking work without a break or being able to sit down, working with constant toxic fumes, no talking, no socialising just work. In 2010 18 workers attempted suicide, 14 succeeded. These 14 workers were deemed to have previous mental issues before coming to work for Foxconn and this is why they eventually committed suicide. Foxconn’s response? Put up safety-nets so people couldn’t commit suicide anymore.

When this story broke, people’s outrage went up, their indignation went up, yet Apple’s profits went up. Which, in all fairness, is what I expected. We’re so disconnected from the suffering of people it would probably take a trip to Chengdu to see these appalling factories for ourselves before we would boycott Apple products. There is too much incentive to buy a cheap iPhone and enjoy your shiny new product than there is to effect any meaningful change. It’s much easier to tweet from your iPad that you’re disgusted with Apple and continue to use it than there is to sell your iPad, or better yet give it to a less privileged person and demand that Apple ensure it cares about the way their products are made.

Nevertheless, people protested and Apple responded. They issued statements that they would launch a formal investigation into the situation and ensure that Foxconn treat its workers better. Did it work? A little, but not enough. It took 14 people dying before the issue was even talked about. No one bothered to ask. But that’s capitalism. It’s a beautiful yet treacherous thing. I sit here with my subway salad, the plastic container probably comes from China, the tomatoes from Pakistan, the lettuce from Queensland, the chicken (if it even is chicken) from Peru. Spinach from South Africa, Carrot from New Zealand, plastic fork from India. I can’t even begin to imagine the face of the person who hand-picked the tomatoes, or shaped the plastic container into the modern work of art that it is. And to be honest, is it bad that I don’t really care to? Until I find out that a 2 year old was forced into doing it and his parents were tortured if he didn’t work fast enough I probably won’t end up caring. Does this disconnect from the things we buy and the food we eat a bad thing? I’ll think about it while I eat my salad.

References:

‘The Labor Question in China: Apple and Beyond  R Litzinger, 2013

“The truth of the Apple IPad behind Foxconn’s lies”  SACOM 2005 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3YFGixp9Jw

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One thought on “What’s in a Brand?

  1. Some interesting points Joel. It’s pretty difficult to imagine the efforts and the materials that went into everyday products that we use. There is an inherit ignorance in our society that disregards the notion that we as a society, a nation can have some influence over the conditions that the products we use, are made. If only it were that easy to boycott a company like Apple, unfortunately people are hooked which is a hard thing to shake. The only real chance at making a difference is awareness (which there clearly needs to be more of in order to shake a corporation like Apple).

    I like how you’ve represented the issue well on both sides but still made a bottom-line conclusion. The facts like suicide-prevention nets should be too powerful to ignore. Great post!

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