Company Hate List

If you don’t like a company’s business practices, don’t support them. Don’t buy their products. Try to get them to change their business practices. Write letters and comments and blog posts making your case. Protest outside of their stores. Speak your mind. Convince your friends to do the same. Do whatever you think necessary and right to get your point across (though I’d implore you to stop short of exacting violence on another living being).

But don’t be a hypocrite about it.

The media kerfuffle over the very serious matter of working conditions at Foxconn and other consumer electronics manufacturers continues. The latest installments in the saga include: 1) A network TV expose (Nightline) leading to accusations of fraud by a corporate watchdog group (SACOM), and; 2) Reports of one giant newspaper (New York Times) complaining to another (Washington Post) about unfair “access journalism” practices in the wake of a hard-edged, critical investigation into Apple’s supply chain (The iEconomy Series). Whatever Erik Wemple’s motivation in blogging about the matter – and, 2b) Apple raconteur John Gruber pokes some holes in Wemple’s post and the punditry it inspired – his but the latest drop of ink spilled over a matter that boils down to a simple question: “Why do we choose to lay blame at the feet of some, but not others?”

Why is Apple making headlines left, right and center over the conditions under which its products are manufactured at Foxconn plants in China, while virtually none of Hoi Han Precision Industry Co’s other customers – from Acer on down to Vizio – are coming under such scrutiny? (For the uninitiated, Hoi Han is the full name of the company now commonly known as Foxconn.) Shouldn’t everyone Foxconn has ever done business with be subject to the NY Times treatment? I can see it now: “Galaxy Economy.” “Eee Pad Economy.” “Core iEconomy!”

Of course it’s not that simple. Global supply chains, corporate negotiating tactics, foreign standards of living, unstable values of currencies, educational opportunities across nations – these are but a very few of the myriad factors at play in the matter of who actually makes the goods that we Westerners buy. The assembly line is ruled by a complex decision making process that eventually lands a $600 tablet computer at my Oakland, CA doorstep by way of factory workers in China, C-level executives in Silicon Valley, and FedEx personnel literally everywhere in between (just to name a few of the folks involved). There are perhaps too many chains in the link between idea, production and sales of 21st Century goods for the lay consumer to really have any idea if the products she’s buying actually line the pockets of the Good Guys or the Bad Guys.

And yet we’re all too willing to bash Company A’s labor practices without researching those of XYZ, Corp or 123, Inc. We rant about working conditions, we write about back room politics, and we lay down our Visa anyway without really knowing the full story. Why is that? Human nature, I suppose. Frankly, it’s easier to buy an iPad and use it to FaceTime with your grandson then it is to figure out which tablet has both a front-facing camera and a heritage of exemplary workers’ rights behind it. It’s just as easy to buy a Samsung Galaxy Tab or Asus Eee Pad Transformer and ignorantly, blissfully Skype with your girlfriend without giving a second thought to whether or not a Foxconn worker leapt from a dormitory window after assembling part of your tablet. So why blame Apple?

I’ve got two guesses, and neither should strike you as particularly original. First, Apple’s breaking all sorts of sales revenue, and market cap records right now. That kind of success always draws attention both welcomed and not. Second, Apple’s got this aura about them as a company that might actually do something about an issue like workers’ rights. That aura is, dare I say, something that the company itself and both their fans and foes have had parts in creating. But it’s there. I’d go further and say that the folks who use Apple products might even fancy themselves the kind of people who themselves care about Taiwanese factory workers they’ve never met, but I know some pretty kind-hearted Android fans, too. Google’s caught some flak themselves, recently, now that I think about it. But I digress.

From the Think Different ads and the lines outside the stores on launch day to the self-proclaimed residence “Where Liberal Arts and technology intersect,” that Apple Vibe is there. It’s a vibe that’s helped them move more iPhones than I can count, and it’s a vibe that’s attracted them plenty of that attention – welcomed and not – that I mentioned a second ago. People expect Apple more than any other company in their space right now to do something about it, whatever it may be. But that’s not necessarily a realistic way to look at something like working conditions in Chinese factories.

So here’s another way to approach the issue:

If you’re really offended by what you’ve heard about the way a company does business, don’t do business with them. But make sure you vet their competitors before you go doing business with them, either. You might not approve of conditions in the Foxconn plants that make iPad 2s, but are you sure you’re okay with how Kindle Fire assemblers are treated? What about the plants that churn out Galaxy Tabs, are they better? Or Transformer Prime – the Prime assembly lines are cool, right? Not sure? Better not buy any of those tablets, then.

Ever seen that show Portlandia? I have, and I hated it. But there’s one skit that comes to mind, the one where what’s her name from Sleater-Kinny and the guy with glasses from Saturday Night Live are ordering dinner. They ask the waitress where the chickens on the menu came from. They ask about the lives the chickens led before being slaughtered and cooked. Then they travel out to the chicken farm to see the conditions first hand. And then, I forget, they wind up joining a cult or whatever (that’s when they lost me). If you really care, go ahead and do that kind of due dilligence before buying your next smartphone. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. Seriously – anything in between is just a cop out.

Apple’s an easy target right now for reasons both worthy and ridiculous. They’re on a hot streak. They just lost their Co-Founder, CEO and longtime public face in Steve Jobs and tons of stock traders have bet millions on whether or not Tim Cook can succeed as his successor. They have more cash in the bank than most people could possibly fathom. They’re embroiled in multiple lawsuits many see as mean-spirited and contrary to the spirit of innovation that makes tech magical. They make products, market products, and interface with the media in a unique way that reaps rewards while polarizing consumers and pundits alike. They’ve done a lot of things to invite criticism over the years, and they’ve done a lot of things to inspire jealousy amongst competitors and said competitors’ fans – especially as of late.

But they’re not the only ones who have their products made in China. And they’re not the only ones who contract to factories whose assembly line workers are subject to 12 hour shifts and day after day of monotony with no room for advancement. And they’re not the only ones making money by leveraging the power of the American dollar (and European Euro, et al) against the bargain-basement cost of outsourcing manufacturing to Mainland China and Taiwan. Lots of gadget makers do it. Lots of toy makers do it. Lots of clothing makers do it. And so it goes.

This doesn’t excuse Apple from being made to answer for their actions and those of their suppliers. And this doesn’t dismiss outright the notion that with great power comes great responsibility. I happen to agree that a company with as much global influence and cash on hand as today’s Apple has a unique opportunity to exact positive change far beyond the impact of iPad 3S HD Retina Edition or whatever they’re readying for us next. Apple perhaps more than anyone else right now can do something about the conditions under which consumer electronics are manufactured. And like many of you I hope their recent decision to work with the independent Fair Labor Association is a genuine first step towards that very end.

However … and here it comes again … there are two things to keep in mind next time you’re Instagramming photos of an Apple Store protest from your iPhone 4S:

1. You can buy whatever the hell you want with your money.

2. You can buy it from whoever the hell you want to.

Rarely are there easy answers to complex questions. But if you can afford the time and money to think about the trail of corporate morality behind your smartphone of choice, you can probably spare a few minutes to ask some questions and make up your own mind before you buy. I’m not going to play dumb and naive and say something reductionistic like, “You’re appalled by working conditions in gadget factories? Nobody’s forcing you to own gadgets, you know!” I mean, seriously, this is a gadget site. We love gadgets. My own personal life is made better by the gadgetry in it. (Except when I stay up late obsessively playing Monopoly on my iPad).

I’m just saying make your own decisions and don’t be hypocritical about them. Choosing not to buy an iPad or Galaxy Note or Lumia 900 because you’re worried about the workers who might be building your doohickey under duress is, to me, admirable. But singling out Apple – or Nokia or Samsung or anyone else – without doing some thorough corporate investigating of your own is just silly. And if you’re that amped up about it, do something constructive like launch a Kickstarter to produce alternative gadgets made by fairly treated workers.

I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but hey, it’s worth a shot right? Sure beats the alternative, I’d say.