If you wonder what happened to the OWS movement and are worried that the protest against the 1% has died, you can relax. The protest is not dead. It just moved from Zuccotti Park to websites like change.org and SumOfUs, where OWSers channel their energy into writing and promoting petitions against corporations that misbehave. It started with petitions against Bank of America, $5 fee on debit cards and Target’s plan to open at midnight on Black Friday, and moved to a protest against Coca Cola’s intervention with a plastic bottle ban in national parks, and now it reached Apple.
Yes, Apple, a company that has fans like no other company, is facing now a public uproar with two petitions against the company that have managed to collect more than 200,000 signatures in just couple of days. The first, on Change.org calls Apple to “protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories,” and the second, on SumOfUs, asks the company to “make the iPhone 5 ethically.”
Apple was supposed to start 2012 in a very positive mode, with a quarterly report showing the highest quarterly revenue and earnings ever and all-time record iPhone, iPad and Mac sales. Yet, things turned out differently. It started with the episode on This American Life, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” where Mike Daisey presented a part of his show on his journey to Foxconn’s factory in China to learn about the people who make his beloved Apple products. Daisey’s report included some harsh stories on how workers are treated and got many people to think for the first time on the social impact of the iPhone and iPad.
Apple acted fast – it released its 2012 supplier responsibility progress report, published for the first time the names of its suppliers and announced it is joining the Fair Labor Association. In addition, Apple CEO Tim said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the company is “raising the bar” on factory conditions. “I have spent a lot of time in factories over this lifetime and we are clearly leading in this area,” he told the paper. Apple probably thought this would be the end of the story, but it got it wrong. Very wrong.
On January 25, the New York Times published an article profiling the “human costs” that go into the making of Apple’s iPad. The article mentioned that although Apple makes efforts to find and correct abuses of workers, significant problems remain and more than half of the suppliers audited by Apple have violated at least one aspect of the company’s code of conduct every year since 2007. The article also included some troubling evidence from Apple executives about Apple’s priorities and lack of real concern about the harsh conditions in their suppliers’ factories.
The conclusion of the article was that until consumers demand better conditions in overseas factories – as they did for companies like Nike and Gap, or regulators act, there is little impetus for radical change. And when it comes to consumers, summarized an Apple executive, they care right now “more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”
Well, not anymore. Both the radio show and the article sparked an online protest larger than Apple had ever seen. Mark Shields, a self-identified Apple “super-user” launched a petition on Change.org calling Apple to protect its suppliers’ workers, after listening to the TAL episode. His argument was very simple – “you’re Apple. You’re supposed to think different. I want to continue to use and love the products you make, because they’re changing the world, and have already changed my life. But I also want to know that when I buy products from you, it’s not at the cost of horrible human suffering.” In just a matter of days, more than 160,000 people agreed with him and signed the petition.
Approximately at the same time, the consumer group SumOfUs launched another petition, urging Apple “to overhaul the way its suppliers treat their workers in time for the launch of the iPhone 5,” which is expected in the latter half of this year.”Apple has this brand that appeals to ethical consumers. They need to live up to that brand,” SumOfUs executive director Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman told the Daily News, which reported that so far 47,000 people signed the petition. Stinebrickner-Kauffman said she was not surprised by the response. “I think a lot of people have been waiting for a moment when this would turn into a movement of Apple consumers, and this is that moment,” she said.
It is yet to be seen if this is actually the moment. Unlike Wall-Street bankers, Apple is an admired company and has devoted fans all over the world. Yet, the combination of record profits on one hand and the ongoing reports on the human cost that is paid by Chinese workers created such a clear presentation of unfairness that even people like Alex Field, who calls himself “an accidental activist” decided to start protesting.
Can such a virtual version of OSW make a difference? Some petitions in the past actually succeeded, like the petition asking Bank of America to drop a $5 debit card fee, or the one asking the National Park Service to ignore Coca Cola and enact a plastic bottle ban. Others like the one protesting Target’s plan to open at midnight on Black Friday failed. In any event, it’s good to see that consumers finally voice their concerns and let Apple know they care about the human cost factor. Now we’ll have to wait and see how Apple will respond and if it’s ready to lead the area, or it’s still mainly worried about getting its products produced faster and cheaper.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.