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When Consumers Forget They're Also Workers, Everyone Suffers

January 30, 2012, 11:52 AM

The ideal American store, Adam Gopnik once suggested, would have no employees. Consumers' desires would be met flawlessly by unerring, tireless machines. On the other hand, the ideal French store has no customers: Nothing to interfere with the workers' satisfying work and humane schedule. Of course, people in any developed country are both producers and consumers, but Americans have long been encouraged to see themselves as consumers, first and last—to hell with anything that gets in the way of quality and variety at a low price. Last week, Charles Duhigg and his colleagues laid out the human costs of that culture in the New York Times: Not only the immediate toll in suffering, injured or dead Chinese workers, but also the long-term effects on our own society.

In Thursday's article, Duhigg and David Barboza describe working conditions at Foxconn plants in Chengdu, where iPads and iPhones (and many non-Apple electronics too) are assembled: Workers forced to use toxic chemicals to clean iPhone screens; people working double shifts, standing so long their legs swell and they end up waddling rather than walking; workers killed in an explosion that could have been foreseen and prevented. They also described the underlying reason, quoting an unnamed Apple executive: "You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper."

This is, of course, the reason that the factories making electronics must be in a country packed with poor people without many other opportunities, and not in Cupertino or Oakland. Duhigg and Keith Bradsher explained that in an earlier article this month. Expectations in consumer electronics are such that products have to be made in a place where workers can be woken up at midnight (in dormitories on the factory grounds) and put to work on a crash shift. In 2007, Steve Jobs decided that the soon-to-be-released iPhone had to have a glass screen instead of the plastic originally planned. "I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks," the article quotes Jobs as saying. it was clear that the only place to get that done was China.

You wouldn't get very far in business if you paused to ask, Why, exactly, was this worth doing? Why couldn't Jobs have had to live with the change taking 10 weeks, or six months, or even a year?

A first answer is that he had a vision, and he wouldn't accept anything less than perfection. And this is supposed to be admirable in every way. Trouble is, when an executive realizes an insanely great vision, the medium—that which is experimented with, molded into strange shapes, stressed with unforeseen tensions—is other people's lives. The executive isn't like a pianist pounding ivories or a sculptor twisting metal. In business creativity, what is pounded and twisted is other human beings. What I've seen of commercial visionaries up close is, frankly, pretty ugly. The Devil Wears Prada caught the vibe pretty well: People going without sleep, without peace of mind, without self-respect, without a family life, all in the service of … what? A product. A slick magazine that people will throw away after a week. An ad slogan no one will recall in a year. A gadget. That's all that results, in the end, from the crazed amphetamine atmosphere of a whole building in which no one has the simple confidence in normality to say: Why don't we all just chill? After all, it's just a phone.

The ultimate cause of this crazy subservience, though, isn't any one visionary tyrant. The ultimate cause is us—we who see ourselves as consumers, first and last. The moral link is obscured by design and marketing, but the Times article makes it clear. If we, the world's excited, entitled consumers, were willing to wait another year for the next iPhone, and pay maybe $65 more for it, then the people who make the things would have better lives. (Is it even possible that, if we were willing to wait two years and pay $80, the jobs could be repatriated?)

But the companies that sell us stuff have decided that we can't tolerate such a slow pace. And they're right, as long as we always perceive ourselves as consumers, never as workers. Consumers by definition are out to get the best advantage they can of other people—the best results for the least cost. Only when you see other people as fellow-laborers can you begin to empathize, and think, well, if you need to go take care of your mother this weekend, I guess I can wait.

So why don't we just chill? Hang on to our computers and phones and e-readers longer, and look for the next new thing every three years instead of every three months? (Those Chinese factories do good work, after all. I am typing this on a 2006 Macbook.)

The standard answers are familiar. The information in the Times articles demolishes them.

One of those answers is this: If you cut down on your consumption, people will lose their jobs, so you're just harming others to feel better about yourself. And if I were telling you to leave the grid and go off into the desert with a herd of goats, this argument might have some weight. But slower consumption isn't the same as no consumption. If the iPhone was upgraded less often, the articles make clear, the pace of Apple's supply chain would slow. It wouldn't shut down. And that slower pace, according to at least some of the experts, might let the factories run without so many double shifts, poisonous chemicals and under-ventilated workspaces.

The other familiar American argument for our frenzied consumerist bias, is, in one word: Europe. The Europe of Gopnik's anecdote, and (its cartoon version) the Europe of Republican rhetoric in this election year. If you protect workers in any way from the demands of consumers, goes this line, goods and services will be slower and shoddier and more costly. Only the lash of desperation brings forth excellence. This is manifestly untrue: French workers are among the world's most productive, Germany is a champion exporter. Even if it were true, though, it's a blinkered argument that values only the consumer part of life. As if lower cost and better performance for us as consumers must automatically and always outweigh the benefits of safe and respectful conditions for us as workers.

Are a clunkier smartphone and fewer options at Fairway worth having your weekends to yourself and being able to make your kids' soccer practice? The answer I suspect for millions of people would be yes. If we march off in the other direction—if we think and speak and act as if there is no other possible direction—we'll have only ourselves to blame.


When Consumers Forget They'...

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