/ Technology

Would you like to see Fairtrade tech?

Fairtrade coffee, tea and chocolate have been a big success with Brits, but it’s not just food that should require an ethical supply chain. Would you be happier buying tech if you knew it had more ethical components?

With sales of smartphones and tablets increasing year on year, there’s a huge demand for the minerals required in their manufacture.

Sadly, many of these minerals are sourced from some of the most troubled and impoverished areas of the world.

Conflict minerals in your pocket

If you own a DVD player, mobile phone or tablet, then unknowingly you also own a small amount of cassiterite, tungsten, tantalum and gold. All are essential in producing tech products, and all tend to be sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which sits on vast mineral resources of $24tn.

The DRC is one of the most conflict-ridden parts of the world, and its mineral wealth has been used to fund militia groups that have perpetuated a conflict that has claimed millions of lives and seen weaponised rape on a colossal scale.

NGO Enough, a human-rights group, estimates that armed groups in the DRC earned some $185m in 2008 from trading in minerals that ended up in Western consumer electronics. It also suggests that around a third of the workforce in the DRC’s small-scale mines is child labour.

US calls for audits, not bans

In an attempt to address this issue, the US passed the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in August 2010, which included a clause saying manufacturers must audit their supply chains and disclose if ‘conflict’ minerals were used in the manufacturing process.

However, while this act calls for ‘due diligence’ on the part of manufacturers, it does not demand immediate cessation of the use of conflict minerals, nor does it threaten to penalise manufacturers using conflict minerals in their supply chains.

Some manufacturers are nonetheless taking a lead. Motorola has spearheaded the Solutions for Hope programme to ensure its raw materials come from responsible sources. And Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Progress Report states a commitment to ethical sourcing of minerals:

‘Apple’s commitment to social responsibility extends to the source of raw materials used in the manufacturing of our products.

‘We require our suppliers to use only metals that have been procured through a conflict-free process and from sources that adhere to our standards of human rights and environmental protection.’

Apple and Motorola are taking a worthy step. By sourcing minerals from ethically-approved mines in the DRC, or from alternative regions like Australia, Brazil and Canada, manufacturers can keep their products free from conflict minerals that fund suffering.

Food matters, so why not tech?

According to the Fairtrade Foundation, every day in the UK we consume 9.3 million cups of Fairtrade tea, 6.4 million cups of Fairtrade coffee, 2.3 million Fairtrade chocolate bars and 3.1 million Fairtrade bananas.

Clearly the ethos of buying food from an ethical source has struck a chord with Brits. Is it time to demand a similar standard for the technology we carry around in our pockets?

Would you like to see tech manufacturers signing up to a clearly marked scheme which will allow consumers to make an ethical choice in the products they purchase?

Do you care whether your tech products are ethically made?

Yes, I do care (56%, 788 Votes)

I didn't realise this was a problem (29%, 408 Votes)

No, I don't care (14%, 201 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,397

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Yes, we should be demanding ‘fairer trade’ for everything on our shopping list. As shoppers we need to take a responsibility for the people who provide us with goods. Do we care if a boy of 5 who’s hardly had enough to eat picks the beans that make our wake-up morning coffee? Yes, I hope we do care, and the UK’s keen adoption of Fairtrade products surely demonstrates that increasingly we do. Yet Fairtrade coffee still only represents considerably less than 1% of the world’s entire coffee production, so we have a long way to go… The working conditions of those who provide us with high-tech products should also give us cause for concern.

We were the first to import ethically sourced coffee to the UK back in 1976. It was years before Fairtrade started… But we created a stir when we imported almost 3 tonnes of instant coffee from Tanzania to the UK to help support manufacturing in the Third World. Our labelling was unique, and featured a photo of a pile of coins, showing who-got-what for the price of a jar of coffee. With the coffee came a booklet called, “The World In Your Coffee Cup.” We provided sufficient reading material to last several cups of coffee! Last month BBC radio interviewed me about our pioneering ‘Campaign Coffee’, that helped to start the idea of ethically sourced coffee in Great Britain. The broadcast is now available on YouTube (4 minutes):


Apple responded to criticism from Greenpeace about use of toxic chemicals and other environmental issues, and it is good that they are taking a lead regarding sourcing of materials. I would like to be sure that Apple has stopped using sweatshops and for them to stop producing Nike-branded products because of the unenviable reputation of Nike in exploitation of children and adults. Apple can afford to set an example in ethical and responsible manufacturing and sales and still make a healthy profit.

I believe that Fairtrade is successful because of the small number of products and the fact that they are relatively inexpensive. I am not sure that many people would be prepared to pay extra for all items they buy in a supermarket. It seems unlikely that Tesco etc would fund the additional cost. Electronic goods are keenly priced and any brand that charges extra because the minerals used to produce them are ethically sourced could struggle to compete.

Try Fairtrade electronics by all means. I am not convinced it will work and what is really needed is for every company to behave responsibly to be allowed to sell their goods.

Tj Pither says:
18 December 2011

I am sorry to say that I dislike any Fairtrade Products. Always a strange taste.

I think we should concentrate far more – about Made in Britain

Sadly, British made goods do not feature much in mass market electronic products. Instead our civilised society exploits people in China and ships products from the other side of the globe.

What are ethics?

So buying something from the DRC is unethical? How about Nigeria and their uranium? Saudi Arabia/Russia/Iraq/Iran and their oil? China and their multitude of wares? the US?

Personally whether the product actually works is of more concern to me rather than where the components are sourced. Realistically if you are that way inclined, you could find issue with every single country in the world and you’d never buy anything.

With the financial issues (hedge funds, banking bonuses with the resultant unemployment) that the UK has had, perhaps we are “unethical” also. Just a thought….

I would like to see this information on the packaging and also in the product description because we often do not see the packaging before purchase, particularly with electronic goods being increasingly bought online.

I would also like the information provided to be accurate. Knowing the lies and misrepresentation that are commonplace in advertising I no longer believe much that I read.

This is an interesting topic, Rich, but I imagine that most people are too busy with preparations for Christmas.

A lot of information on ethical issues for consumers is available from organisations who specialise in this field
Fair trade Organisation
Ethical Consumer Research Association

Sorry if this looks like advertising but I have refrained from posting links to their sites !!

Eric says:
19 January 2012

does anyone know where I can source ethical tech products. I can afford the 25-50% difference or choose less tech stuff and would like to start affecting change with my dollar. I’ve seen some disturbing reporting on china’s tech factories and need to in good conscience reevaluate what my consumer dollars are supporting. THe reports are haunting me to the point of no return. Anyone have tech companies who give their employees at a decent wage, sources raw material environmentally. I understand it may still get transported with “blood oil”, but I am over ethical perfectionism and need to start somewhere. thanks

Longhwa says:
16 February 2012

Rich, I think fair trade high tech products is perhaps one of the most important concepts in the world today, considering how many tens or hundreds of billions of dollars worth of products are purchased each year…and where they are in fact manufactured, and by whom and under what circumstances.

I have been thinking of this issue for quite some time, but what ignited my interest was a recent article in the New York Times about Apple published on January 21, 2012 entitled “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.” Generally, the article was extolling the virtues of Apple’s production and cost savings methods used principally in China. Among the virtues extolled were the fact that whereas a worker in the US might earn lots more than $17 per hour, workers in China were earning a lot less than $17 a day. I thought…what’s the difference between this and coffee farmers? The Times Article mentioned how Chinese workers live in dormitories, work six (nonsense, they often work seven) days a week (and likely without overtime), and truthfully from my experience talking to many workers with personal experience, more than 12 hours a day. It sounds awfully much like slavery. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

“They could hire 3,000 people overnight,” said Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, but declined to discuss specifics of her work. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?””


I also recall an Interview with Zhang Yi-mou, the director who directed the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. One part of the ceremony required hundreds of workers to stand for up to 18 hours without breaks practicing for their performance. Zhang said there were only two countries in the world that could have produced such a performance – North Korea and China. He laughed, saying you could never do that in the US, where they have such annoyances like Labor laws and human rights. This from China’s most famous movie director. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

“I have conducted operas in the West. It was so troublesome. They only work four and a half days each week. Everyday there are two coffee breaks. There cannot be any discomfort, because of human rights. This can really worry me to death. Wow, one week, I thought I should have rehearsed it very smoothly already, but they could not even stand in straight lines yet. You could not criticize them either. They all belong to some organizations. ….they have all kind of institutions, unions. We do not have that. We can work very hard, can withstand lots of bitterness. We can achieve in one week what they can achieve in one month. Therefore our actors can give such a high quality performance. I think other than North Korea, no other country can achieve this in the world.”

Scared yet? Would you care for your country to adopt there kinds of labor standards?

A developing country is supposed to develop. It is not supposed to act like a giant black hole, sucking all of humanity into it, destroying everything that we have worked for for over a hundred years of development, in labor rights, human rights and political rights. Yet, here we are.

So let me get this straight. Chinese laborers are working like slaves, to produce cheap high tech products which not only are bought in the developed world (all over the globe), but which in addition have killed tens of millions of jobs in the developed world. In other words, if workers in the UK or in the US want to compete with the Chinese slave-laborers, they would need to work for peanuts. If you were a corporation would you pay some US factory worker $17 per hour, or some Chinese laborer $17 a day? And the reason Chinese laborers make those wages is because there are no labor rules or labor enforcement per se in China, and certainly no true concept of human rights (as famous director Zhang Yimou acknowledged, and, in effect, extolled).

Our world economy is imploding because there are no jobs because there are a few hundred million workers treated like slaves in places like China making most of the high tech stuff we use every day. Fair traded high tech products would take a step towards ensuring workers are paid a reasonable wage, which would make Chinese laborers’ conditions more humane, competition fair, and instead of exporting China’s slave economy to the rest of the world, bringing all of us down to China’s level, it would bring hard fought labor principles to China, raising the workers up. It is called the People’s Republic of China, but truthfully, I see very little in it for the people. It is simply the remnants of the Mao Dynasty now.

Mind you, this is not about destroying a nation’s economy, but rather extending a hand to uplift hundreds of millions of workers who are being exploited in the worst imaginable ways by a government intent on two things: preserving its system of iron control, and keeping the masses marginally satisfied, ignorant and pliant. The outcry for fair trading these goods is to help those masses achieve human dignity and freedom from abuse.

The other problem is our schizophrenic consumerism. We want the very cheapest products, but we also want the highest paying jobs. Impossible, as you can see. If we truly want a better standard of living, we must see to it that countries like China adopt labor policies which provide for payment of acceptable living wages and working conditions. One of the ways of doing this is at the store…where people refuse to buy products, include beloved iPhones, made by slaves in China. Will this mean higher prices. Perhaps. One solution is of course, smaller profits for hi-tech companies like Apple. I wonder. You go to the store and buy an iPhone. It’s cheap. You jump for joy. It was made by workers in Shenzen probably. If it had a pink slip on it that said “This product was made in China, and as a result 100 workers in the United States were laid off”, would you still buy it? Don’t lie…you probably would…”not my problem, some guy needs to be retrained.” However, if the pink slip on the iPhone said “This product was made in China, and as a result your next door neighbor with the two cute kids, and your Uncle Joe lost their jobs” you might have more concern…hopefully. Until as consumers we make these real life decisions that affect everyone we know, Apple and other companies like it will continue to reel in billions and billions of dollars of profits from this situation.

Do you think Fair Trading these products is even conceivable? What can we do?

Apple commits to fair trade- I read with interest an article in the current Private Eye that the choice of FLA to audit the processes that Apple use in their business is rather strange, as it is not in their field of expertise.

Perhaps your following article, Apple’s cash-for-laptops service offers rotten value, gives an insight. actions speak louder than words.

If Apple want to do the right thing then the need to be seen to be doing the right thing and accept that this will require changes in their procurement systems.

Niklas says:
7 September 2013

Check out Fairphone. Already have a phone but I will definitely look up Fairphone when I need a new one.