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Tim Cook Flexes His Muscles, Foxconn Responds

March 29, 2012, 6:40 PM

We have devoted a fair amount of attention on Big Think to the ongoing saga of Apple's relationship with its Taiwanese-owned electronics supplier Foxconn. Why do we care about this story so much? There are at least half a dozen big ideas that underline this story's significance and touch our world in a profound way. 

The one big idea we will focus on in this post is corporate responsibility in today's global economy. 

Foxconn, the leading manufacturer of electronics in the world -- which makes Apple iPhones and iPads, among other products -- has a very contentious relationship with its workforce. There has been a rash of suicides at its plants as well as alarming announcements about eventually replace workers with "an empire of robots" that would number half a million. 

Today, Foxconn announced it will sharply cut back the hours that its employees work, while simultaneously increasing wages. This could have enormous ramifications for labor conditions across China. But there is much more to the story than that. 

Apple has succeeded in building extraordinary, almost religious customer devotion to its brand. And yet, revelations about Foxconn led many critics to question whether Apple had grown so fast that the company had lost touch with its original mission. Did Apple need to slow things down, or was it that important to rush the next version of the iPad to insatiable consumers?

Was there any middle ground? Could Apple deliver its products AND prevent mass suicides?

This is not the first time we've seen this happen. Remember Nike in the 1990s. Reports of that company's overseas manufacturing practices were brought to light, resulting in protests and even boycotts. Some today are calling the Foxconn controversy Apple's "Nike moment."

So Apple indeed had a choice to make. The company could flex its considerable muscle and demand better working conditions at the factories of its suppliers. Or the company could keep on keeping on. Apple decided to act. The company joined the Fair Labor Association, a group that was tasked with investigating work conditions at Foxconn plants. After an unfavorable report and a visit to Foxconn from Apple CEO Tim Cook, Foxconn announced its plan to improve working conditions today. 

This is not the only area where corporations can function as powerful change agents. In the video below, Aron Cramer, CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, describes how Walmart has mandated that its suppliers must provide energy-efficient products, to great effect. 

Watch the video here:


Tim Cook Flexes His Muscles...

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