Apple, America and How America is Losing

I like Apple products. The reasons have less to do with being trendy than how the devices fit into my life. Yes, I have gone overboard as my business success allowed me to purchase the latest and greatest of their products. However, most of those machines have been grandfathered as new ones were purchased. Many have been given to family members. The oldest one still in use is a 6 year-old MacBook Pro that had been dropped while being carried in a backpack without any padding.

The products Apple makes are beautiful and durable, glass iPhones notwithstanding. My desktop is approaching four years in age and since I installed a solid state drive, I believe I extended its usable life by at least 18-24 months. The laptop I’m writing this on is just over a year old and still works as good as the day I first started using it. It’s a pleasure to use. I’ve edited countless images on it. I have always wondered how these products are made; I assumed it was mostly by robots. I was very, very wrong.

A week or so ago, This American Life aired a monologue from Mike Daisey that shed some light on how the products I use everyday and enjoy so much are made. It’s worth listening to in its entirety:

Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory | This American Life.

Mike Daisey was a self-described “worshipper in the cult of Mac.” Then he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made. Mike wondered: Who makes all my crap? He traveled to China to find out.

This isn’t just about Apple, but about all the gadgetry that we use. Apple hasn’t officially responded to Mr. Daisey’s assertions, but they have posted this page, which is linked from a prominently placed graphic on’s homepage:

Apple – Supplier Responsibility:

“Apple is committed to the highest standards of social responsibility across our worldwide supply chain. We insist that all of our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes. Our actions — from thorough site audits to industry-leading training programs — demonstrate this commitment.”

The New York Times published a story that explores the national and international implications of how our very profitable gadgetry is made. This story should be required reading for the entire United States:

Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class –

“It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”

There is no place on earth at this moment with the culture, supplier proximity and a seemingly endless supply of workers willing to work like hell, sleep in cramped dormitory quarters and expose themselves to harmful chemicals for what we consider to be a pittance except China. The kicker for me from the NYTimes piece is that it wouldn’t cost Apple that much more per iPhone to make it in the United States. Cost isn’t the problem. The problem is one of infrastructure. We don’t have enough people with the right knowledge and/or skill sets necessary to compete. We don’t have the supplier chain scale or companies who can make things like screws or other machined parts and make them quickly. Systemic failure to adapt. This failure starts with education and reaches deep into the pysche of this nation starving for jobs and wanting to build things at home. It’s hard to look in the cultural mirror sometimes, but these stories are fantastic examples telling us we must look. And we know before we do, what we see will be difficult to grasp at its most full.

  • Anonymous

    We live in times where outsourcing is the way to go. If a company or person does not keep up, someone else is there to fill in your place. I just recently watched a video with Seth Godin talking about the same thing. He used Walmart as an example and how the world rushes to buy product that is cheaper but not necessarily better. And sometimes buying more expensive items doesn’t necessarily give you a great product either. So how do we differentiate as to what is good, and what isn’t is the question. Just my 2 cents. 😉 

  • Sara Jane Snyder

    Sigh. Labour issues are a cause of mine–how that happened, I’m not exactly sure, but here I am, modern slavery advocate. Not only do we not have the infrastructure, for the most part we don’t have the desire, as a culture. We prefer cheap over ethical. Add to that our uber-brand-consciousness, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Example: we’re willing to pay $4 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, yet not willing to pay that much (or, sometimes, a little bit more, but usually just about the same amount) to ensure the coffee we get is not picked by a nine-year-old girl who should be in school but is instead picking coffee for 50 Kenyan shillings a day–(the current exchange rate is about thirteen cents to the KS) while toting her two year old sister on her back, exposing both of them to pesticides rather than literacy.

    (on a completely different note, my dad recently called to inform me that he had my 1992 Mac Classic up and running OS7 perfectly happily the other day. Eek!)

  • Lisa Folb

    I just listened to that episode today… it was like listening to a science fiction story. I found myself wondering about the brand new iPhone 4S I bought the day before… I wondered how much of the price I paid was reimbursement for the research and development, and how much for the manufacture. Where does that $180+ price tag come from anyway?

  • spamhere

    I saw Mike Daisey’s performance on this subject at the Berkeley Rep and it was searing. There’s no way to avoid harming others, no matter what choices we make, but I left determined to buy as few electronic items as possible.

  • Kate Pogue Rau

    I’m so glad to see you address this, Jon.  I listened to the TAM podcast last week (on my newest iPhone, oh the irony).  Later that day, purely by coincidence a friend (who works for Micron) forwarded a news story about the alarming number of suicides at Foxconn.  It is beyond sickening, and yet, how do we stop it?  I have boycotted Walmart for over 20 years and I only buy organic/fair trade coffee….and yet, I’m not willing to give up my iPhone.  This, of course, makes me a big, fat hypocrite.  How can we mitigate the horrifying cost of human life??

  • Michelle D

    I haven’t read the articles in their entirety yet but I find myself often wondering about the outsource vs made in the USA debate. If it was just about cost, then I would most certainly be willing to pay 5% more for most items, but it is more than that. Americans (and yes this is a generalization) don’t like menial work, we think we are above it. Over seas people are grateful for the work because it is often all they have. Thus, it is cheaper. So yes we have to watch the fine line between them working for less and making sure we are not perpetuating sweat shop like conditions (we have a moral obligation to that in my opinion), but more important we as an American Culture need to get over ourselves and stop complaining about how work we don’t to do is being outsourced. 

  • Gloatessa

    Upon learning about the conditions at Foxconn, a rightwing libertarian I have the misfortune to know, had this to say:

    1. “Change takes time.”

    Even though the offshoring of North American manufacturing started in the early 1980s and the corporations that offshore jobs have shitloads of money and influence to ensure conditions are half decent. And even though they could bring all of those jobs home and still make shit loads of profits, selling at the same price. Granted they wouldn’t be billionnaires, but they could still have loads of houses and cars and pools, and designer wear.

    2. “Money goes where money grows.”

    I really wish I didn’t work next to this person, who, by the way, not only lacks an imagination, intelligence, and an education in the real world, but lacks competence on the job.

    I will never understand the empty shell he is.

  • ms. martinifontaine

    This is one of those side effects of our “free market” economy. American corporations can make more money and therefore a better bottom line by outsourcing the labor. We’ve been doing it for long enough now that we have no infrastructure to change even if we wanted to. I think the real problem is the unwillingness for American people to *admit* that this actually is the way we want things. We want super smart gadgets that are made inexpensively. We want food to cost less than 1/3 of our total income. We want fast food to be an option. 

    We cannot have all those things and still sit on the moral high ground. That is all. 

  • aeamratlal

    I agree with all of the above comments and then some. A couple of other factors to throw into the mix: many of us invest in companies like Apple, etc. and we want a return on our investment, to help fund our retirement. This drives an obsession with share value/earnings, etc., which contributes to the need for maximising profit margins. We don’t want to pay too much for our gadgets/etc, so the profit equation has to be solved at the other end – in low-cost production.

    Another thought – as noted above, we’re pretty reluctant to pay the real costs of our goods – from gadgets to groceries etc (Except for prestige products/brands – where we seem to be willing to pay for high mark-up – clothes, etc.). If we had to pay the true costs for most of the goods we purchase – we couldn’t buy nearly as much stuff as we do each year. The consumer economy would fall apart like a cheaply made suit.

  • Stephene Howard

    I love Apple products and I pay so much more than Americans do for them.  Someone above quoted $180 for the IPhone 4S?  Mine was $800. In fact, compared to prices in the US, EVERYTHING is more expensive here.   Course, the average cashier earns $20 an hour in Australia.  That could have something to do with it. 

  • Brooke

    You wrote: “We don’t have enough people with the right knowledge and/or skill sets necessary to compete,” echoing a similar sentiment made in the NYT.
    I’m confused as to what is meant by this. 
    Even with better living conditions, bathroom breaks, wages, etc., it doesn’t seem like installing a tiny piece in a tiny phone 5000 (or 4000, or 3000) times a day is a good job for a human being.  I’m not sure I can get behind the idea that the US is failing to compete because it is not creating more of these types of jobs.

  • GreenInOC

    Wow, I almost missed this post – glad I found it and the insightful comments.

    Like Sara Jane, labor issues are big cause of mine.  I only partake and purchase Fair Trade chocolate, sugar, vanilla, tea, etc…  I do most of my “shopping” at Goodwill or on Freecycle type sites to avoid the brand new “made in China, India, Mexico” or other country where the item was more than likely made by polluting the planet and taking advantage of labor.  

    I share this with you by typing this out on my MacBook Pro, while listening for my iPhone to ring and if I need to call someone back, I’ll use my Uniden land line cordless phone.  If I’m hungry, I’ll open up my LG Fridge – you get the point.

    I try really hard to at least make my electronics last but it’s an uphill battle.  I bought a new dishwasher this summer (my 13+ year old one finally gave out and was sparking).  I bought the cheapest one I could and I joked with the installers about it being the “worst” one they have installed in a while.  No, they said, it was actually pretty good.  It might even last 4-5 years.  What?!  That’s not good at all.  They laughed and said that even the most expensive ones don’t last any longer and often break sooner.  Somehow we think that this is okay.

    I do think that as a culture if we just collectively said, “No, the long term cost of this product is not one I am willing to pay”, then we’d have more of a response from manufacturers.

    It all feels overwhelming.

  • blurb

    I think it’s easy to lose hope in the face of all of this. The variables are many and the solution so complex that we want to run from it. I think we need to stop and face it head on. Ask the hard questions and get to work…

    I think I just came up with a follow-up post.

  • Sara Jane Snyder

    “Ask the hard questions and get to work…”

    Actually, I think you just gave us words to live by. Words by which to….whatever. Shut up. :p