An Open Letter to Apple Enthusiasts

Dear fellow Apple enthusiasts,

How many of you care about the Chinese factory-workers that produce our iPads; and
if you do care, would you be willing to pay 11% more, if that would improve labor and environmental conditions?


You may have heard stories about the working conditions in the Chinese factories that produce Apple's products, but you may not have heard how the story began:

Mike Daisey, an Apple enthusiast and monologist, heard a report that someone had received an iPhone with photos taken from inside the factory. Apparently every iPhone's camera is tested in the factory, but on this camera the test images had not been deleted.

If a sparrow falls in the forest and no one hears it,
does it make a sound?

Every year we gather with friends and family to be entertained by huge patriotic football players and witty corporate speech. Many times the corporations personify themselves as animals. There are the burping frogs, the prancing horses, and a talking gecho, not to mention the occasional sexy woman.

Empty Birds

Yet while, we say we care about each and every Chinese worker whose labor we consume, their image is not "humanized" in the same way. Perhaps that is because the Chinese factory worker does not have a budget to spend, or a marketing firm to represent them.

If an Apple factory worker were an animal, what type of animal would they be and how could their speech get the same attention as the talking horses and donkeys?

Recently, a friend of mine forwarded me a link to a video of 11-year-old Jackie Evancho singing a song her uncle Matt wrote, titled "To Believe", in which Jackie sings as soulfully as a songbird.

Buy on iTunes

Our iconic electronic Luxuries

Last week, while I was reading an article in the New York Times about factory conditions at the plants that produce electronics, like Apple's iPad, I began to question my enthusiasm for the upcoming iPad release, and Jackie's song started to play in my head.

Sparrows at Southbank

Jackie says that the song is about "people who don't have the luxury that we have"; and it speaks about war, hunger, and poverty -- huge issues that seem impossible for one person to address. Yet, even in something as basic as the working conditions in the electronics plants that produce my luxuries, I feel powerless. From what I hear, other electonics firms are similar, leaving my only option -- buy or boycott all electronics products (its not just Apple).

Do all "consumers" only care about the lowest prices? Do we see the workers who produce our products as fellow humans, who as Jackie says are made in the image of God?

We can create the market.

The easy thing for us to do is to put the entire ethical burden on Apple and other vendors; and wash our hands of it.

Flying Sparrow

I do believe that Apple has a responsibility to improve the way they treat their (supplier's) workers, yet that does not absolve me of my complicity.

I believe that markets are conversations. How we do things matters because we are not just "consumers" living in a closed world. We can speak to one other and create the markets we desire.

Over the past week, I've talked to people; I researched online; and I've listened ..

What I've heard is that we need to teach corporations to feel the song of the poor.

Branding our values: the 22%

A collegue of mine at work liked the idea of Apple creating a parallel product line for which "image-conscious consumers" would pay a premium for more ethically-sourced versions.

ipad : 22%

Why H22 ?

H22 is when we voluntarily spend 22% more to express our human values.

I chose the somewhat arbitrary markup of 22%, because, like Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, it seems to take a gimick to break into the news cycle. My goal is to start a conversation by signaling that there is demand for better environmental and labor standards. As a rough guide, I drew on Harvard Business Review blogger Umair Haque, who recently did a back-of-the envelope estimate that a Fair-Labor iPod would cost 23% more.

Why stay with Apple?

There are a lot of other electronic brands, but Apple has:

In short, Apple is in the best position to lead, once we, the "consumers", express our values.

How many people would volunteer?

Apple products are already luxuries of a sort, yet in talking to people at my church, I was told that most people wouldn't care.

"Only 1% would voluntarily pay more."

That's an interesting number. Are they right?

The Pledge: Show your support

Enough is enough!

If you want to send a message that more than 1% care enough to to pay more, show your support by "liking" this on facebook or retweeting it on twitter:

Yes, i, too, believe .. that companies should set higher standards in producing their products and I'm willing to take the lead by paying my part. To get the conversation started, I'm offering to pay 11% more for a more humanely-sourced product. I call on Apple to match my offer, dollar for dollar.
I expect that new facts and uncomfortable complexities will emerge as the conversation develops, but it is a conversation worth pursuing.

Faceless Facebook User

Corporations can speak with their bank accounts,
but can they sing with their souls?

Somewhere in China, there is at least one young man working at a factory who can sing like this:


Here's an interview Mike Daisey did while Steve Jobs was still alive:


Read more

Join The Conversation

  • with your friends on facebook
  • on twitter
  • in person!

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with Steve Kovach that boycotting will not work and consumers have to sacrifice something if they want workers to have better working conditions?
  2. What do you think of this quote from a labor rights group: "The Fair Labor Association is largely a fig leaf," said Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change, a labor rights group. "There's all this rhetoric from corporate social responsibility people and the big companies that they want to improve labor standards, but all the pressure seems to be going the other direction -- they're trying to force prices down."",
  3. How could we best structure this financially?

    Perhaps rather than giving the money directly to Apple, we could fund an independent organization that promotes best practices and inspects all willing suppliers. This would decouple the inspectors from the inspected, ensuring that their incentives are aligned with our values and true transparency takes place.

  4. How much is this a timing issue? Is it more ethical for "consumers" to wait longer-- exercising patience -- so that there is less pressure for factories to pump out high order volume while still adapting to Apple's changing requirements?
  5. How much is the Chinese market already responding to demand through higher wages and better living conditions?
  6. How feasible is it for Apple to create another production line? I hear they are expanding to Brazil.
  7. Should the factory workers be Apple employees, as Mike Daisey suggests?
  8. I've used a lot of religious language because Jackie's song is religious. Do you think the religious comparisons Mike uses in his This American Life story are warranted? Here's a less religious petition.


Given existing product life-cycles, even at higher prices, I don't expect Apple to start producing iPads in the US because, even though labor costs are only a small fraction of the cost more-automated assembly lines like those in the auto industry can't be overhauled to meet changing demands as quickly as the Apple's more labor-intensive Chineses assembly lines. But that shouldn't be a excuse not to do better..

In China, sparrows were villified for stealing grain.

"Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what's really going on inside the company."

~ Cluetrain Manifesto #28


Mike Daisey's story was not literally true, the type of truth that that journalism requires, but a stylized compilation of fragments Mike encountered or read about, exaggerated by a factor of 2.2.

If you listen to the retraction, starting at 50 minutes, you will hear Charles Duhigg say that that the razor-thin profit margin Apple permits it suppliers is the source of a lot of the problems and that Apple could more fairly build the phone for only $10-$65 more, but so far Americans have been willing to accept harsh working conditions for others, if it saves Apple and them a few bucks.