Can you buy technology with a clean conscience?

PC World sells, at the time of this magazine going to press, 85 different laptops. Its website stocks 26 variants of the Apple iPod, and an extensive range of tablet computers – each keenly priced, and capable of performing tasks that sizeable desktop PCs of a decade ago would have struggled with.

Can you buy technology with a clean conscience?

Chances are, too, that each was made in a factory in China. The reason for this is simple: workers are cheaper in most Eastern economies, and the saving made on labour greatly outweighs the expense of moving tankers full of products to the other side of the world.

In the past, when people have voiced ethical concerns surrounding technology, it’s typically been centred on environmental issues. Such issues, as we’ll see, are still relevant, but it’s increasingly the human consequences of manufacturing technology that are coming under the microscope.

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The ethical tech buyer’s checklist

How is the end user supposed to know just how their shiny new product came to be? Do they even care that there’s a sporting chance the manufacturer itself couldn’t tell you where every last component came from? And if they did, how is it possible to have confidence that the product they’ve just bought conforms to any kind of ethical standard? Or do we all just want to buy the cheapest product available?

Is it even possible to buy any technology with a clean conscience, without bankrupting ourselves in the process?

Focus on Foxconn

On 2 January 2012, more than 150 workers at the Foxconn Technology Park in Wuhan, China, took to the roof of the factory and threatened to commit suicide. It took two days to talk them down from the top of the three-storey plant.

The protest started in response to Foxconn’s decision to move hundreds of workers to a different production line. Reporters (including those from PC Pro) dutifully published this news; ironically, they did this using equipment that was more than likely a product of said Foxconn facilities in the first place.

Suicides and stand-offs over poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories have been rife for many years, to the point where the company has installed nets to break the fall of potential jumpers. The facilities, which manufacture hardware for many major companies, are responsible for the production of more than a third of the world’s consumer electronics products, employing hundreds of thousands of workers.

Suicides and stand-offs over poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories have been rife for many years

Yet those workers are cheap. You don’t have to look far for stories of six-day weeks and 12-hour days among employees, with pay rates reported to start at a mere 30p an hour.

This, it should be noted, partly reflects the lower cost of living in China than in the UK. But even so, it’s the kind of substantive saving in manual labour that companies including Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and Acer have been keen to take advantage of, building up sizeable profits for themselves in the process. Apple alone racked up $20 billion of gross profit in the last 13 weeks of 2011.

Increasingly, these firms have come under fire for continuing to support factories that pay such meagre wages and provide such poor working conditions.

Yet, the question of employee treatment isn’t as clear-cut as campaigners may lead you to believe. The suicide rate in Foxconn’s factories, for instance, is below the national average figure for China as a whole.

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