Global Ethics Corner: Smartphones: From Popular Product to Ethical Dilemma

Friday, August 6, 2010

Smartphones are everywhere and require complicated decisions. First, you have to figure out which best meets your needs and budget. Then, you have to figure out how to use them effectively.

Now, they also illustrate an increasingly common and difficult ethical choice. This progression from consumable product to ethical dilemma seems an increasing feature of globalization.

There are many examples. It occurred with commodities like coffee where an option developed for fair market coffee, which emphasizes the grower not the coffee companies. Similarly, campaigns against exploitive labor conditions overseas impacted Nikes manufacturing of shoes and Wal-Mart's clothing line by Kathy Lee Gifford.

As Brian Fung notes in Foreign Policy, with smartphones there are similar labor issues and environmental issues, given the significant amount of carbon emissions over a phone's life cycle.

Regarding foreign affairs, all smart phones rely on the mineral coltan, whose heat resistant properties and ability to hold an electrical charge make it essential.

Much of the coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where its extraction and economics is analogous to the highly publicized blood diamonds. Coltan from the Congo represents one of the worst illustrations of modern mineral exploitation.

With its iPhone, Apple acknowledges the seriousness of the issue but hasn't embraced an effective response.

Given the source and deprivation behind much of the coltan, what will you do? Use a device that is a modern necessity? Seek the manufacturer that is socially and environmentally responsible? Or rely on the marketplace of ideas and products to change the production of coltan and smartphones?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Brian Fung, "The Geopolitics of the iPhone," Foreign Policy, June 28, 2010.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Bruce Alderson
Jorge Quinteros
Hajime Nakano
C. J.
Grant Bierman
The Advocacy Project
Brian Harrington Spier
Dan Farber
Jens Schott Knudsen
Richard Moross


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