How Evil Is Your Smartphone?

In a recent post, ReadWriteWeb's Adam Popescu vowed to boycott Apple due to its association with Foxconn, the Taiwanese contract manufacturer infamous for sowing despair among its workers. Reading the article, I had to ask myself: Did the maker of my smartphone - a RIM BlackBerry - also help drive workers to suicide? Did it release toxic pollutants into the environment or fuel wars in places far away from its head offices? So I set about looking for the world's most ethical smartphone. What I learned surprised me.

Participants in the comment thread below Popescu's article were quick to point out the many electronic products that can be traced to Foxconn. The company's factories churn out devices for Amazon, Microsoft, and Samsung. In a related Skype chat, ReadWriteWeb editor Ted Greenwald commented that there are no ethical gadgets, period; their manufacture and use are not sustainable, he argued.

Okay, maybe there are no ethical smartphones. But some must be better than others, right? 

Ethical Consumer, a UK organisation “researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies” since 1989, is a leader in evaluating products for their impact on human rights, animal rights, the environment, and other factors that might fall under the heading "ethics". Its report on smartphones isn't very positive, in general. It awards points from a possible score of 20, and nobody scores more than 10.5.

That said, I was happy to find that my BlackBerry appeared near the top of the heap, just below Amplicom (a maker of cordless phones that doesn't offer a smartphone as far as I can tell.)

BlackBerry fell considerably short -  behind Apple, Nokia, Toshiba, LG and Samsung - in waste management and the level of toxins in the production process. RIM never filed an environmental report, so Ethical Consumer gave the company a 0 in those areas. BlackBerry’s failures in the green category, however, were enough to bouy its score compared to that of other mobile manufacturers.  

The 38 page report by Ethical Consumer is extensive, and includes goodies like: Samsung has ties to human rights abuses in the Congo - as does Toshiba, Motorola and Sony - and Sony has raised flags among animals rights groups for abuses including killing a goat at a promotional party. Several female Nokia factory workers in Thailand had to be hospitalized for severe lead poisoning in 2006, after they were told lead wasn’t harmful. Workers had to buy their own protective gear, like gloves and face masks, and were told to drink a carton of milk a day to remove the birth-defect causing toxin from their bodies. (Milk does not, in fact, help you pee out lead.)

CrackBerry Supports Human Rights

If we are judging how ethical a smartphone is based on its treatment of workers, BlackBerry is near the top. Incidentally, RIM's report is surprisingly free of negative human rights indicators: no riots, no illnesses, nothing. The worst things about RIM, according to Ethical Consumer, was its failure to file an environmental report and that it had a factory in a repressive regime, namly China.  

RIM has (or used to have) factories in Canada, United States, Hungary, Brazil, Asia, and Mexico, where my BlackBerry says it was made in. After a casual disassembly, the small electronic parts in my phone reveal they come from China or Korea, but further information on exactly where and what factory is hard to find, as RIM is notorious for its lack of transparency. According to a 2009 Bloomberg article, “RIM’s five biggest suppliers account for almost 90 percent of its production costs,” suppliers that operate mostly in China. BlackBerry still beats the Android and especially Apple on this factory issue, however,  because riots and suicides at RIM factories are unheard of (so far).

Due to declining profits, RIM recently shut down one factory in Canada and one in Hungary, countries with strict labor laws and therefore high wages and good working conditions. There is nothing to indicate that RIM’s failure to dominate the market like it once did is due to its adherence to fair labor laws. Rather, RIM’s decline is a result of mismanagement and lack of innovation leading to low demand.

If RIM Can Do It, Why Can’t Apple?

Apple and its Android competitors don’t have RIM’s problems. So why are they still relying on Foxconn? Apple is incredibly profitable - reputedly the most profitable company of all time.

Apple set the smartphone standard and turned us into a touchscreen society. Why can’t it set the standard in labor conditions? Sources in the know say Apple would love to have its factories closer to home anyway to keep an eye on quality control. According to Ethical Consumer, Apple has been providing unsafe conditions to its overseas factory workers since 2008 and using factories in 10 countries classified as “oppressive regimes” since 2006.  

Until Apple moves its manufacturing operations closer to home and/or makes a commitment to setting high standards for its labor practices, I will keep using and loving my BlackBerry despite ridicule from the Apple snobs and Android fanatics. I eagerly await RIM's upcoming BlackBerry 10 phones.