The Social and Environmental Costs of the Newest Gadgets

We all face ethical dilemmas. Such situations, sometimes called moral dilemmas, occur when one has to choose between two different options, each of which involves breaking a moral imperative. Throughout this book, we will present situations that involve ethical dilemmas for the players involved. For most (if not all) of these situations, there are no definite solutions. In trying to resolve ethical dilemmas, decision makers should take into consideration both the consequences of and the actions involved in each approach: First, consider the consequences of each potential course of action, in terms of benefits and harms (considering degree and time horizon), so as to identify the option that maximizes benefits while minimizing harms. The second step is to consider the actions involved (irrespective of the consequences) and to evaluate which actions are least problematic from a moral standpoint (in terms of honesty, fairness, respect, and so on). While you may not arrive at a perfect solution, taking these two factors into account should give you some guidance on how to arrive at a decision.
There are various ethical dilemmas surrounding the production, use, and disposal of electronic devices, and Apple is no exception. For example, tiny silver letters printed on the back of an iPhone say: “Designed by Apple in California— Assembled in China.” Globalization has enabled Apple to focus on designing electronics consumers crave while outsourcing the manufacturing of components and assembling of the devices to contract manufacturers on a global scale. However, while Apple keeps tight control over the designs of its devices, it does not always have complete control over how its suppliers build the devices.
As a case in point, Foxconn, one of Apple’s primary Chinese assembly partners, was recently scrutinized following a series of complaints of poor working conditions. The pressures of huge production volumes and tight deadlines resulted in pushing workers to their limit, causing twitching hands, uncontrollable mimicking of the motion after work, a rapid burnout rate, the resignation of 50,000 workers each month, and even up to 14 suicides. An independent audit at various factories confirmed that laborers worked excessive overtime and faced health and safety issues. In addition to labor, rare earth minerals are crucial for manufacturing electronic devices. Used for everything from magnets to superconductors, many of today’s high-tech products would not exist without rare earths. However, the mining of these minerals, primarily done in China, poses an enormous threat to the environment as well as to the health of the mining workers.
As the leaders of other technology companies, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook faces a number of dilemmas. For its shareholders, Apple pursues a goal of profit maximization. In pursuing this goal, Apple introduces gadgets consumers crave at an ever-increasing pace, creating a hype around each new device, which, in turn, creates huge demand. There are few suppliers worldwide who can, on relatively short notice, produce the numbers needed to meet the demand for Apple’s products, so shifting suppliers is not easy for Apple. At the same time, reducing working hours, raising salaries, or offering other fringe benefits negatively affects Apple’s profit margin. Further, for many young Chinese, working at Foxconn for a few months is better than the alternative of tilling the fields on their families’ small farming operations or not working at all, as evidenced by the thousands of workers lining up for Foxconn’s recruiting sessions every week.


1. If you were in Tim Cook’s shoes, what would you do?

2. As a consumer, what are your ethical dilemmas associated with the ever-increasing desire for new gadgets?

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