Consumer activism loses to Apple

Yes, those devious Apple ads forced you to buy an iPad made by underpaid workers.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty

For years, consumers have been told to look behind the brand. Everything we buy, it seems, is hiding some dirty little secret, from conflict diamond rings to factory-farm chicken breasts. The solution, we’ve been told, is to demand better from companies. Vote with our wallets. But has this consumer guilt trip finally run out of gas? Some brands, it turns out, are guilt-proof, forcing activists to dramatically change their tactics.

Earlier this year, media investigations into working conditions at Apple’s Chinese subcontractor Foxconn (some of whose findings were later proven false) led to calls for a boycott. Judging by the mass hysteria over the latest iPads and iPhones, it hasn’t worked. So, chastened activists are reassessing their approach. In a recent posting, anti-business personality Annie Leonard unveiled a surprising new tactic: she absolved consumers of all blame for their purchases.

If you’ve never heard of Leonard, ask your kids. Her 20-minute cartoon The Story of Stuff has become a staple in grade schools. (My son saw it in an Ontario Grade 7 science class.) Her fun-looking drawings are actually a clever delivery system for an anti-corporate rant directed at young consumers. Leonard characterizes all businesses as oppressors of workers and peddlers of toxic products, and calls for a popular uprising against them.

But consumers used to being guilted into action by Leonard, Naomi Klein and their legion of fellow activists found themselves in a pickle over Apple. They dutifully felt bad about working conditions in China, but the prospect of missing out on the latest iGadget left them feeling even worse. How to square this circle?

“Next time someone says they feel guilty for owning an iPhone, ask if they were the one who decided to maintain a 73% profit margin while underpaying workers,” Leonard advised last month in the Huffington Post. “If Apple didn’t keep rolling out new, massively hyped models, how many owners of perfectly functional iPhones would want a new one?”

In Leonard’s new world, we’re all hapless dupes to Apple’s marketing department with no responsibility for our actions. It’s a familiar refrain, if you happen to live in the world of Mad Men. It’s entirely absurd today.

If people can’t bring themselves to stop buying iPhones, it’s because they find value in what Apple is selling. The same savvy consumers who demand free-range chicken are perfectly capable of deciding whether an upgrade is worth the money.

Besides, anyone who read the independent report into conditions at Apple plants would be hard pressed to find much to worry about. Foxconn is considered among China’s better employers. Rather than feeling exploited, its workers worried that international attention would reduce their hours. Their top complaints? Pay, bonuses and the food in the cafeteria—the same things you’d hear if you polled a North American factory.

And if we no longer have to feel guilty about what we buy, can we please bring back bottled water and free plastic bags? Those were really convenient.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues.