In the wake of news reports of horrendous conditions at the Chinese plants that make Apple’s iPhone (and just about every gadget we love) ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes asked readers how much more they would pay for “ethical” consumer electronics – in other words, that were built in safe, humane working conditions.
It’s question that goes right to the core of our entire fast-changing, tech-happy, consumption driven IT business model. As I recently wrote for the Global Delivery Report site I edit, companies like Apple rely on China not just for lower costs, but the flexibility to, say, change out the screen on a phone at the last minute so customers get the absolute coolest product possible. If 8,000 workers in China must be roused out of bed to make the last-minute change, so be it.
What percent of the business and consumer tech market would be willing to pay a premium for an iPad, notebook or home router certified to be made in a factory that protected workers’ lives and paid them a decent wage? Maybe 10% of the market? 20%? If the experience of organic grocer Whole Foods is any guide, there are enough upper-income folks out there to support a decent business (or maybe a store within a store at retailers such as Best Buy) selling such guilt-free goods.
True, at Whole Foods (which some folks call “Whole Ppaycheck” due to its nosebleed prices) you get the benefit of supposedly healthier food along with the feeling you’re helping the environment and not exploiting farm workers. Maybe combining the “fair trade” promise with “Made Domestically” would be enough to separate you from more of your money.
As with Whole Foods (and, heck, with Apple) the key is marketing and presentation to a high-end audience. (Ever wonder why the boxes of cantaloupes are left unpacked in Whole Foods? Because it looks more rustic.) The “green” theme will have to go beyond the eco-friendly bamboo covers (less harmful plastic!) some computer makers already offer. I see pictures of smiling workers next to the higher-priced yellow price tag, offers to donate to the local school rather than an extended warranty at the checkout counter, and patriotic denim carrying cases to show you’re packing gear made in the good ol’ U.S.A.
The only thing that’s missing is some obessed visionary, a la Steve Jobs or Whole Foods’ own John Mackey to make it happen. If you read this and get rich, throw me a few shares of stock to show how ethical you are. In the meantime, I gotta get back to work so I can afford the guilt tax on my next cell phone.
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