The iPhones, laptops and tablets that hum, click and glow in Mission coffee shops have suddenly become reminders of lousy labor practices, and Mission users are wrestling with a new dilemma: What to do about it.
“So many of the goods we are carrying are made in China in conditions we in our country consider unacceptable,” said Adrienne St. Aubin, who works in the tech industry. “I am a fan of innovation and yet there are aspects that concern us.”
St. Aubin sees potential in consumer action. “It needs to be organized, but it’s possible to make a boycott, to decide not to buy electronic devices for a month, to raise the hand. I see a potential willingness to do that.”
Already, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, some users are signing on to campaigns at Change.org or SumOfUs, and it’s clear that in the Mission, where tech love and sustainability concerns meet, such a conversation has started.
“It’s tough,” said Sergio Flores outside Four Barrel Coffee. “Producing here is more expensive.”
Jon Riner, sitting nearby, added, “If they’re not produced in a good working environment, obviously I’m not for it, but….” It’s a common trailing off. Are there options?
After being questioned by a reporter inside Four Barrel, SFO employee Drake Beaton turned to his companions, Nicole Beach and Emily Erb. Would they would be willing to pay more for fair trade technology?
“I am,” Erb said, explaining that she would like to see manufacturing jobs back in the United States. “But in San Francisco we live in a really conscious city,” she said, indicating that elsewhere, that might be a tough sell.
Beaton cut to the chase on how labor practices might be changed. “Consumers speak through the dollars.”
A few tables away, Josey Baker questioned the widely accepted high-cost excuse. “Apple is making a lot of money. Maybe that wealth could be better distributed.”
The conversation in the tech community, said Jocelyn Boreta, fair trade program director of the human rights organization Global Exchange, is a big first step.
“Those large companies recognize that they’re in business because their customers are behind their product,” said Boreta. Customers, she said, would never stand with companies if they knew about overseas factory conditions.
To change the way Apple’s employees are treated, she added, “the company would have to see a decrease in profit.”
At Ritual, Ana Zacapa thinks paying attention to labor practices would serve Apple. “In the short term it may be cheaper to produce in bad labor conditions, but in the long term the companies that integrate sustainability are going to be more successful,” she said.
Although the focus has been on Apple, in part because of the unprecedented sales of iPads and iPhones, no one believes Apple is the only problem. However, because of its strength in the industry, Apple can be the one leading a change, Mission users said.
“Maybe all this Apple thing can bring transparency,” St. Aubin said.
Amy Tucker suggested stronger regulation. “Consumers can help raise awareness, but then one person in a company is making one decision.”
Boreta said consumer campaigns have been successful in the past. She worked on a 2003 lawsuit targeting clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss. In the ’90s, Levi Strauss was known as the all-American brand. “With the American flag flying high,” said Boreta, “they were based on ‘made in the USA’ and a union labor concept.”
The opposite was true. Although Levi Strauss’ factories were in Saipan, a U.S. territorial island in the Northern Marianas, Saipan factory workers were paid half the minimum wage required by U.S. law. In 2004, Boreta helped settle the Saipan lawsuit against Levi Strauss, making sure Saipan workers were treated with dignity. Up until 2009, clothing manufacturers like The Gap, Nike and Walmart also had factories in Saipan.
More recently, the Clean Clothes Campaign, an organization dedicated to improving garment industry working conditions, was effective in getting clothier Tommy Hilfiger to make changes to the labor practices of its suppliers. The campaign ended the suppression of trade unions in Indonesia and workers dismissed from their factories were rehired, according to the group’s 2010 annual report.
Examples like these show progress in the the textile and garment industry, but Boreta warned that any consumer campaign has to be skeptical of a company’s claims. “I think they’ve been effective in building consumer consciousness,” Boreta said, referring to the campaigns. “But it’s controversial to say that they’ve been effective in changing companies’ labor policies.”
“Bigger companies have the funds to create a marketing strategy to really enhance [the idea of change] without actually making change that’s going to affect the worker,” she said. “It’s pretty easy to twist adjustments in labor into this very rosy picture of adhering to labor standards.”