Part of acknowledging one’s position of privilege in society is undertaking more ethical approaches to consumption. This is a complicated task under the conditions of late capitalism, but particularly in the 2010’s when considering the ubiquity of smartphone ownership. By 2020, it is projected that smartphone ownership worldwide will rise to 2.87 billion. While there remains a significant divide between the rates of smartphone ownership in developed and developing countries, the rates of ownership in emerging economies are steadily rising. Although this kind of progressive technology can be an extremely useful tool in terms of communication, internet access, and information acquisition, there are certainly ethical drawbacks to the international smartphone takeover.
The way phones are powered comes with a history of exploitation regarding both natural resources and human rights. Almost all cell phone batteries contain cobalt and coltan, minerals which help control the flow of electrical currents. Coltan and cobalt are primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mining industries of the two metals are both extremely lucrative and linked to serious breaches in human rights. According to The Washington Post, ‘An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures.’ The miners are not the only ones at risk due to the industry, as the communities surrounding the mines are exposed to ‘levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects’. It was even discovered by Amnesty International that seven-year-old children were found working under the dangerous conditions of the cobalt mines. Both adults and children earn approximately one dollar a day mining cobalt for twelve hours. The cobalt then goes through the supply chain, eventually used in the batteries of phones manufactured by Apple, Microsoft, and Vodafone. Congoan miners of coltan have been threatened and physically assaulted. As reported by Euronews, the ‘mining, smuggling and illegal taxation [of coltan] has allegedly funded violent armed groups in one of the longest lasting ongoing conflicts on Earth‘. Unfortunately, ethical issues surrounding smartphone batteries also pertain to other electronic products that rely on rechargeable batteries, the most notable of which are electric cars.
Another issue arises when considering the assembly process of smartphones themselves. Apple’s Chinese iPhone supplier has been receiving allegations of inhumane labor practices since as early as 2010, continuing through the production of iPhones 8, 8 Plus, and X. The allegations primarily concern unfair wages, job cuts, and working conditions poor enough to result in multiple suicide attempts by employees. When interviewed by Newsweek, a former temporary Apple supplier worker, Dejian Zeng, claimed that most supplier-employed people do not even own iPhones due to how expensive they are in comparison to workers’ wages.
Apple’s largest competitor, Samsung, has been accused of human rights violations concerning the assembly of their smartphones, too. Business Insider UK reported in January of 2018 that the company was sued by two French human rights groups for ‘misleading advertising because of alleged labor abuses at factories in China and South Korea’. These allegations include the exploitation of child labor as well as the use of ‘dangerous equipment and gases‘. The advertising which is accused of misleading consumers in a statement on Samsung’s official website pledges, ‘a world-class environment, safety and health infrastructure and rigorous standards to safeguard our employees’ well-being’.
Given that the average turnover rate of the smartphone is approximately 21 months, and the previously mentioned growing market for such technology, global demand will most likely not be shaken by accusations of these human rights abuses. Many consumers even form loyal relationships with their smartphone producer of choice. Nonetheless, there is certainly room within this growing market for “fair trade” phones. Currently, there is the relatively ethical consumption option of purchasing a Fairphone, whose creators source the minerals for their batteries responsibly, create sensible working conditions, and pride themselves on producing minimal environmental waste. Unfortunately, the newest installment of the Fairphone is somewhat expensive at €529.00, and its manufacturer has yet to phase out the usage certain hazardous materials like PVC, BFCs, and phthalates. Still, the apparent success of this product proves that there is a certain marketability for products that are as good for users as those who make them.
The Luwowo coltan mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Protest outside the Apple Store in Hong Kong
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