Why is nobody talking about ethical hardware?

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We need to think more about ethical hardware

Learning about the supply chains of our hardware allows us to draw conclusions far beyond the remit of the tech sector.

Amongst cultural optimists, there is a hope that society is turning away from pursuing profit for profit’s sake. Consumer choice is no longer down to just aesthetics because ethics are playing an increasing role in driving purchase decisions. Indeed, in the UK, the ethical sector has grown by more than £40bn since 2008; with each household spending an average of £1300 on ethical products in 2016. At Atomic, we’ve been thinking about the limits of such a sector.

Ostensibly, it’s hard to imagine that the ethical sector needs broadening. It includes everything from vegan foods and groceries, shampoos and shower products, to organic and ‘up-cycled’ clothes, keep-cups and plastic-free toothpaste.

And as a result of the demand for ethical products, they’ve become readily available, with large corporations stepping up; Iceland are now renowned for banning palm-oil in their own label stock.

On the face of it, it looks like the UK is an ethically engaged country.

What I can’t understand then, is why we’re not talking more about the startling lack of ethics involved in our tech’s hardware, and especially, our smartphones.

We all know that most smartphones are ‘Made in China’. We’ve become so used to seeing those three words, few of us have ever thought long and hard about what that looks like in practice.

Recent documentaries, like BBC Panorama, have shown that this looks like over 200 million migrant labourers, many of them just teenagers, travelling across China each year to work in factories of an unimaginable scale.

It seems funny that in the West, we’re so concerned by our children’s ‘screen-time’ and smart-phone addiction. What we really should be thinking about are our neighbours’ children who work in factories with poisonous, cancer-causing chemicals to bring these very devices about. The most infamous of these is Benzene; it’s used to wipe down screens and micro-chips, but also causes Leukaemia. It’s name has been in public discourse recently because digital giants like Apple banned it following an expose.

Typical working hours in these factories are 8am to 11pm; with no holidays, no ventilation, and no windows. It’s no surprise then that there are troubling suicides associated with this work beginning in 2010.

But the labour process doesn’t start in the factory. In regions across the globe, and particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the minerals needed for mobile devices are extracted. These are referred to as ‘blood minerals’ because they’re often controlled by armed groups, so dealing with them involves being complicit in complex and bloody conflicts. It also involves turning a blind eye to the children as young as seven searching for tin, gold and cobalt with their bare hands.

Moreover, harvesting these minerals is terrible for the environment. Smartphone mineral mining represents around 90% of the devices total emission for two years. That means that buying a new smart phone requires as much energy and recharging and operating one for over a decade (Fast Company).

The end of a smartphones the life-cycle is no better than its conception either. Very few of us have our smartphones for longer than our 24-month contracts. Far more of us choose to ‘upgrade’ to newer, shinier models, without recycling or discarding our old devices properly. Mission Blue, a charity helping to safeguard our oceans, estimates that the number of dead zones in the ocean (vast areas of sea where naturally occurring species can no longer live), increased 500 fold in the past 40 years and this is largely due to the noxious chemicals used in various industries.

One of the only companies who are trying to create a smartphone as ethically as possible is Fairphone. Available from €399, the Fairphone 2 is made from conflict-free minerals, specifically materials that ‘empower vulnerable communities or have better sustainable performance.’

Fairphone are pragmatic. They’ve acknowledged that making an entirely ethical smartphone is, at present, impossible. They have also acknowledged that simply refusing to work with high-risk groups isn’t a panacea, but could actually worsen the situations of the most vulnerable. Consequently, they’re working to continuously clean up supply chains with on-going initiatives. An example of this is their work with cobalt; they are working to connect cobalt from artisanal mine sites that meet ‘baseline standards’ to battery supply chains. Additionally, they’re developing programs on health and safety and implementing fairer incomes for local artisanal miners.

It strikes me that we need to be more like Fairphone in our approach to living more ethical lives. We too need to be pragmatic. And pragmatism relies on continual, brutally honest, self-appraisals. We need to square the circle that we’re not going to be able to make the world a better place by using products that do the opposite. With every key I tap to write up this article – ostensibly broadening all of our minds for the greater good – there’s a chance I’m complicit in child-labour, a bloody conflict and a working environment so appalling its driven its members to suicide. At different levels of gravity, this ethical hypocrisy is everywhere. A parallel would be drinking non-dairy milk from a bone china mug, or taking your keep-cup to Pret then buying a chicken sandwich wrapped in plastic and cellophane.

I’m not saying we should all beat ourselves up for not being one hundred percent ethical. Expecting this would be misguided, but we do need to stop kidding ourselves about the difference we’re making. It’s not about buying a canvas tote bag and remembering to take it to Tesco occasionally, (all the while patting ourselves on the back for saving 10p), it’s about being continually engaged with the issues at play. As consumers, we can’t all purchase a Fairphone today, just as brands can’t turn their multi-billion pound operations into Fairphone-esque ethical machines overnight. But, we can all try to adopt Fairphone’s ethical ethic; constantly holding ourselves to account, asking ourselves what dark processes we’re a part of, and what we can do to clean them up.

Summer Taylor is a strategist at Atomic London.

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