December 20, 2014

I recently watched a BBC Panorama documentary program entitled “Apple’s Broken Promises.” The premise is that Apple Inc made a promise to their consumers when they published their supplier code of conduct and supplier responsibility standards, and that Apple Inc willfully breaks them when manufacturing their products.

The exposé focuses on Pegatron Corporation, one of the companies Apple contracts to assemble their products, and the tin industry of Indonesia, whose tin is used around the world to solder electronic components.

I’m not chomping at the bit to defend a multi-national corporation, one of the largest and most profitable in the world — they can certainly buy all the help they need — but the documentary was built upon a false premise that equates Pegatron Corporation and Indonesia’s tin smelting industry as subsidiaries of Apple Inc, instead of independent businesses that Apple Inc and many other companies give business to.

The specific allegations against Pegatron Corporation are that their workers, who assemble more products than just Apple Inc’s, have their required state identification confiscated by their recruiters and only returned to them when they appear at their jobs, that their workers are coached to cheat contractor evaluations, that they work in unfit conditions for too many hours, that they live in cramped rooms, and that they are generally mistreated.

As for Indonesia, Apple Inc buys tin from Indonesian companies, who allegedly source some of their tin from illegal smelters, who allegedly buy some of their tin from illegal tin mining operations that destroy the environment and routinely kill workers in accidents — ignoring that legal ones aren’t much better.

The documentary never mentions that all of the world’s products are produced in identical or worse conditions. Apple Inc is singled out because they’ve tried to improve things within their supply line, and have mentioned that publicly. Apple Inc tried — that’s the documentary’s premise — Apple Inc tried to make things better, but they weren’t successful enough.

But the documentary doesn’t really show Apple Inc’s practices. It shows capitalism. It shows how if you starve people, they’ll do anything to eat. It shows the process of how everything in your home is made. It shows how America’s desire of more for less is sated.

In effect, the documentary shows the methods by which resources are extracted from the developing world by the developed. The documentary shows how if the rich want to be rich, they need the poor to be poor. It shows how developed and developing economies are in a symbiotic relationship to destroy life on this planet through a mutual interest in personal greed.

If everything in an American store was completely produced in America — from knowledge to workers, and materiel to materials — few could buy it. It would be too expensive for consumers, and less profitable for manufacturers.

The modern American middle class is built upon the lie that the cheap prices we have today are produced from some system that’s sustainable. Without those cheap prices, the average American’s standard of living would instantly fall. The middle class would dissolve, and anyone not making more than a few thousand dollars per month would find themselves back in poverty.

Someday that will happen. It’s inevitable. We can jump from resource to resource, and production line to production line; we’ll always have cheap labor, but we won’t always have cheap materials.

Someday the land will be dead, and we’ll mine the oceans. Someday the oceans will be dead, and we’ll consider mining space.

Someday we’ll starve and die. The Earth will rebuild without humans, but not because we left it. Someday, a day far beyond our lives, in some moment beyond human-measurable time, our greed will turn us into the minerals and fossil fuels we love so much. And that’s quite fitting, actually.