Soul-Searching Over Apple Exposé

The concerns have been mounting for years, but suddenly, with last week's blockbuster NY Times series on Apple's supply chain, the question is on everyone's lips: have the defining consumer products of our time been created at an intolerable human and environmental cost?

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I've been an Apple loyalist since the first Mac in 1984. My wife and I currently own six Apple devices between us and I've gotten the rest of my extended family hooked over the years as well. These things have changed the way I work, think and even organize my life and it's almost impossible in 2012 to imagine or even remember life without them. I'm writing this on a Mac. I even bought a few shares of Apple stock way back in the dark days, and boy, am I glad I did.

And yet it's become increasingly clear that the Apple empire is built on the backs of inhumane and even deadly conditions for thousands of workers, not to mention their mediocre (if improving) environmental record. How should the millions of consumers who've flocked to Apple's devices in recent years respond to this reality?

One option being proposed is a boycott–stop buying the company's products until it cleans up its supply chain. "¨It's an honorable idea, perhaps, but boycotts rarely generate momentum (think Exxon) and even more rarely affect corporate behavior–especially when a company's products are seen as being irreplaceable, which is what the cult of Apple is all about.

And even if consumers were willing to switch to other products, are Apple's competitors any better? Some more than others, perhaps, depending on what you're looking at, but in general, not so much.

So to really take a stand on these issues, consumers would have to boycott not just Apple but all the makers of the devices that define our digital age. And of course this industry is no different than just about any other these days in its relentless global pursuit of low costs and high profits. It's what the 21st century economy is largely built on. Can we boycott an entire economy?

And, some ask, should we? Arguably, even the horrendous conditions facing many workers in Apple's and other electronics companies' supply chains are still better than the alternatives these people otherwise face in poor, remote Chinese villages or in even worse factories in other industries. And arguably, the benefits of products like Apple's in creating value, opportunity, innovation and efficiency around the world outweigh the human and environmental costs of their manufacture.

But still… even if you accept these arguments, they're hardly reasons to look the other way.

"¨So what's a concerned 21st century consumer to do? "¨

Well, here are some ideas: "¨

–Hold onto your gadgets as long as possible–try to avoid the seduction of the next "wow" version when your old "wow" is still working fine. At the very least, you can help slow down the product cycle.

–If you're not just a user but also a stockholder in one or more of these companies, become a shareholder activist. You're an owner of the company–make it clear you want your company to represent your values.

–Pay for your news–buy newspapers, subscribe online, support nonprofit journalism like public radio. I'm serious. What companies like Apple DO respond to is bad press. Like the old adage goes, Sunshine is the best disinfectant, whether it's shining on government corruption or corporate practices. The Times series, and its ripple effects around the world, are exhibit A for the indispensable value of independent, public interest journalism. But this stuff costs money. Somebody has to pay those bills, and if you're just reading and listening for free online, you're not doing that. No more sunshine, no more exposés.

–Exercise your power not just as a consumer but as a citizen and political actor. Conventional wisdom says that Apple and other corporations have little choice about their labor and environmental practices in a cutthroat global marketplace. But the market is what we make it–it's not something that exists independent of human actions and decisions. And believe it or not, citizens still do have the power to help shape the market and the laws that govern it.

Apple's decision last year to stop buying conflict minerals from suppliers in central Africa came just as a new US requirement that companies disclose the sources of their minerals went into effect. Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not.

That requirement was part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and was the result of pressure by activists and other citizens. Now others are reviving the argument from the early NAFTA days that the US should bar the import of goods made under conditions that would be illegal in our own country, or at least impose import tariffs to balance out the human rights, environmental and public health subsidies companies get by producing their goods in places with few or no standards and controls. That's a much tougher case to make than the source disclosure provision, but not impossible to imagine, if enough people got behind it.

Apple has become the quintessential American company, and it's part of us in more ways than we've been imagining. Its unprecedented success reflects not merely its uncanny ability to innovate and shape our desires as consumers but also some dominant American values. We've decided that we want free trade. We've decided that we want our stuff, always newer and always better, and always at the lowest possible prices. And we've decided not to think too much about where it came from or how it was made.

But judging by the reaction to recent revelations, it seems that for many Americans, it's suddenly time to Think Different.

Update Feb. 2: Since I posted this yesterday, I've learned that in mid-January Apple became the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association, and will allow independent auditors inside its suppliers' facilities.