That’s the cover of last month’s Wired magazine. The corresponding piece by Joel Johnson, 1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame? is a really thought provoking read about the Foxconn plant in China where iPhones are manufactured…and where 17 people have killed themselves in the past five years. It probably would be more if they didn’t install “suicide nets” to safely catch anyone who tries to jump:
The sister piece, Made in America: Small Businesses Buck the Offshoring Trend discusses a trend of American businesses who are choosing to manufacture in the US to cut down on mistakes, save on shipping costs, and stop intellectual property theft. A lot of this is made possible by using automation to counter cheap overseas labor.
But what if there’s another option? What if consumers would just pay more for an American-made iPad?
Do we care? My personal opinion is that people do, just that they don’t have a choice. If I want an iPad my only choice is one made in China by Foxconn. Now, if I walked into a store and saw two iPad’s, one made in South Carolina selling for $599 and one identical one made in China selling for $499, that’s how you’d figure out if consumers care or not.
It’s hard to say how I’d react in that situation, but I think there’s a decent chance that I’d pay extra for that iPad with a “Made in USA” sticker on it, and the label explaining how this iPad was “made close to home with environmentally friendly manufacturing processes by American workers in a safe and modern manufacturing environment”…or whatever other advantages they could place on a US-made iPad.
And before you say, “Adam, that would never work!”, consider the one good example of this that’s succeeding right before our eyes: organic foods (and other organic products). People are willing to pay huge premiums – 10%, 25%, 100%, even more – to buy vegetables that don’t contain pesticides or meat from cattle that was grass-fed. Many times the sources of your organic food are local farms and not some farm on the other side of the world. Even during a recession, even at price-conscious chains like Walmart, organic food sales continue to grow at ridiculous rates.
Why? Because ultimately I think people care about where their stuff comes from. You just have to make the choice easy. When I’m standing in the super market and I see two packages of chicken, one from an organic farm and one not, it’s hard not to buy the organic chicken even if it’s a few dollars more. Part of it is that I think it’s a healthier choice, but I also like supporting local companies with good, safe, sustainable practices. I almost feel cheap/guilty if I don’t buy organic when the choice is so simple! Clearly I’m not alone.
So while it might not be an apples-to-apples comparison (no pun intended), I think that there’s a decent chance that given a fair opportunity, people would choose a slightly more expensive product to know that it was made in a place where workers weren’t killing themselves with regularity.
Update 4/23/2011 – I was driving home today listening to TWiT when Leo Laporte and Kevin Rose brought up literally the same idea. A few minutes of interesting discussion ensued. Here’s the video on YouTube (I linked to the correct time in the video, but there’s a minute or two of backstory).
Update 5/7/2011 – This Wired.com article from yesterday, New Report Details Onerous, Illegal Working Conditions At Foxconn, depicts some of the poor working conditions at Foxconn, including working up to 100 hours of overtime per month (36 is the legal limit in China).