iPhone Trade-In Program Heats Up, Casting a Spotlight on Illegal Tin Sourcing

iphone_SamBeebe_EcotrustApple’s announcement last August that its stores would be launching a trade-in program for the iPhone was great news for devoted customers, even better news for commercial competitors and perfect timing for environmentalists who want to draw attention to the destructive effects of cell phones.

With Apple stores fully behind the trade-in program, competitors like Walmart and the online tech trade-in site Gazelle are getting into the game and trying to up the ante when it comes to trade in values.

This may be just what Apple would like to see, but one thing the company probably wasn’t counting on was increasing publicity from Friends of the Earth (FoE) earlier this year about the detrimental effects of tin mining. Nor, it would appear, did the iPhone giant really want to answer questions about where it gets its tin.

But in July, after being increasingly pressured by emails from FoE members, Apple announced that it would be conducting a “fact-finding visit” to the islands of Bangka and Belitung “to learn more.” It didn’t admit whether the tin it makes its soldering materials from come from Indonesia, or what it would do if this were the case.

FoE clearly didn’t think this gesture was enough. It immediately responded by publishing a photo of a small child mining minerals with his hands on the island of Bangka, and urging members to “ask Apple to face up to the problems on Bangka,” whose coral reefs and land the environmental group says are being systematically destroyed through pollution and atrocious examples of child labor.

“We don’t believe Apple is fully committed to helping children like Febri until it admits that it gets tin from the island. Apple needs to come clean about its supply chains,” reported FoE in its July 17 response.

Now it seems, the debate has entered into another phase.

A Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London has come forward to say that he didn’t think FoE is portraying things fairly – either for Apple or for the island of Bangka.

Tim Worstall admits that he is “not entirely unbiased on this matter” since he works in an industry that uses resources from these islands. But in his September 24 opinion in Forbes he implores readers to take another look at the facts.

Like most mining operations of precious resources, Worstall explains, Bangka’s tin comes from “a legal part and an illegal” part of the island’s operations. It’s the illegal operations he says that are causing all the trouble, pollution and child deaths.

“Apple (or any other manufacturer) can’t exactly insist upon not using the small amount of production that is coming from the illegal miners and smelters,” Worstall defends. After all, just by the virtue of the fact that the bad stuff is being smuggled out (because it’s illegal), authorities and caring people can’t really do anything about the problem.

Worstall insists as well, that the illicit sources are far outweighed by the legal sources, as if this is a reason to look the other way.

The center of his argument, however, is his assertion that “this area is almost certainly the most environmentally sound place to be getting tin from anyway,” because other sources, such as tin mines deep within mountains that require back-breaking and life-taking labor that far exceeds the costs (child deaths or not) on Bangka and Belitung.

He doesn’t deny that children are being used in labor, or that the average number of fatal accidents has reached one per week at times. But environmentalists rallying for better conditions don’t realize that they are being unfair to Apple and other companies, not to mention to those who are mining Bangka.

“This is what we want people to be doing, isn’t it? Gaining the resources we want to use at the least expenditure of resources to get them?”

I am not sure whether Apple would necessarily agree with his public relations approach. His defense for tin mining at the expense of labor protections and unchecked environmental conditions makes one good point: more focus is needed toward where and how we get our tin.

But meanwhile, Apple, Walmart, Gazelle and oh, yes, Amazon are all competing wildly for the cash-in business of iPhone customers.

Now about those coral reefs …

Image of iPhone courtesy of Sam Beebe, Ecotrust


Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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