Bad Apples

When George Monbiot popped up in my feed asking Why is Apple so shifty about how it makes the iPhone? I was expeciting to see another case of someone blaming a single company for the sins of an industry. It’s often a tempting strategy for activists to focus on the most visible part of an industry and this approach certainly gains attention. However, in doing so, they tend to let everyone else off the hook. As such, I am always a little wary of attempts to lay all problems at the feet of a single company.

It turns out, however, that in this case my assumption was wrong and my wariness unfounded:

So [Friends of the Earth] approached the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturers, asking whether they are using tin from Bangka. All but one of the big brands fessed up. Samsung, Philips, Nokia, Sony, BlackBerry, Motorola and LG admit to buying (or probably buying) tin from the island through intermediaries, and have pledged to help address the mess. One company refuses to talk.

According to Monbiot, almost half of global tin supplies are used to make solder for electronics and about 30% of the world’s tin comes from Bangka and Belitung islands in Indonesia. Obviously, this industry supports many people on the islands but the lack of visibility, regulation or interest has led to economically and socially catastophic results.

[R]educing a rich and complex system of rainforests and gardens to a post-holocaust landscape of sand and acid subsoil. Tin dredgers in the coastal waters are also wiping out the coral, the giant clams, the local fisheries, the endangered Napoleon wrasse, the mangrove forests and the beaches used by breeding turtles.

Children are employed in shocking conditions. On average, one miner dies in an accident every week. Clean water is disappearing, malaria is spreading as mosquitoes breed in abandoned workings, and small farmers are being driven from their land. Those paragons of modernity – electronics manufacturers – rely for their supplies on some distinctly old-fashioned practices.

Friends of the Earth are seeking greater transparency on the part of the companies buying the tin extracted there. With greater transparency, so the thinking goes, comes greater accountability and the possibility of improvement. This approach is showing some success and Samsung are leading the way towards finding an industry-wide solution to end the damage. Apple, on the other hand, are trying to pretend that there isn’t a problem and – if there is – it’s nothing to do with them.

Friends of the Earth are calling on people to email Apple and ask them to get their act together.

George Monbiot is also calling on people to not buy Apple products until the company starts to display the transparency that Tim Cook has promised but failed to deliver.

As someone who has never bought an Apple product, and has no intention of ever owning an iGadget, this would be a disingenuously easy commitment for me to make. So I shall take a step further. As of now, I will never knowingly use an Apple product. I will never borrow an iPad and, if the only device on which I can check my email happens to be an iMac then I will just have to check my mail later.

Coincidentally, this post was written on a Samsung laptop. Less coincidentally, I will be treating myself to a Fairphone for my birthday Christmas.

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