Have you seen the articles on TechCrunch about the workers in the Chinese iPhone plant maimed in the line of duty without receiving medical care? The overwhelming response in the comments has been a kind of fatalism you rarely see in Silicon Valley: observers all agree that we as consumers are powerless, that Apple itself is powerless, with no choice in how its phones are manufactured.
Why not just say “Stop buying all electronics and go back to the stone age!” asks Nitin Alabur, in the most popular comment on one post. It’s such a farce to blame just Apple for all this!
The idea that Apple won’t listen or can’t change is the real farce. In this age in which every corporation carefully monitors the faintest tweets about its brand, companies worry obsessively about how buying their products makes consumers feel.
As the CEO of Redfin, I have sat in meetings with the entire executive team worrying about whether policy decisions — the decision to skirt a low-priced area for example — would tarnish our reputation for social responsibility among a handful of consumers.
And Apple worries more than most. You pay more for an Apple product because of how it makes you feel when you buy it: as if you’re striking a blow for creativity over corporatism, even fascism. That feeling is Steve Jobs’s greatest achievement. It probably accounts for a third of Apple’s market value.
So when we try to convince ourselves that Apple doesn’t care what we think of Foxconn, we’re hoping to be more powerless than we are. At no point in history have consumers been so carefully analyzed, courted and catered to, yet we act like no one would ever listen to us. If Egyptians were this way, Hosni Mubarak would be looking forward to another thirty years in power.
Retailers are far more sensitive to criticism than Mubarak. Consumer concerns over Wal-Mart’s labor and purchasing practices have, for example, had a greater impact on our immediate world than any election: Wal-Mart is now the world’s largest seller of organic foods, and it just began pressuring its suppliers to offer low-fat, low-salt alternatives to unhealthy snacks.
Why would Wal-Mart do this if all consumers cared about was low prices? The company certainly didn’t start that way. It changed because it realized how miserable shopping at Wal-Mart makes people feel, regardless of the money they are saving. Imagine if you felt that way when you fiddled with your phone.
The first reaction would come from Steve Jobs, who would ask Foxconn to open a clinic for its 450,000 workers to get on-site care. With billions of dollars on the line, Foxconn would listen to Jobs more carefully than to Obama or any other American.
We know Foxconn would listen because Apple’s power over its suppliers is legendary. No other firm can refuse to pay suppliers for prototypes, but Apple does: the iPhone business, Apple argues, is so lucrative that suppliers shouldn’t worry about prototype costs when competing to be an Apple manufacturer.
And Apple has iPhone manufacturers other than Foxconn, insisting as a matter of policy on multiple suppliers for all of its products. In the past, the company hasn’t been timid about using its choices to create more leverage. Just ask its acting CEO, Tim Cook:
Cook’s relation with the supply chain is best described by an anecdote reported by CNN, related to the period when Cook joined Apple in 1998 to straighten the operational morass that Apple was in. In a meeting convened to tackle a problem in China, he had said: “This is really bad, someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes in the meeting he chided Sabih Khan, the then operations executive, saying “Why are you still here?” Khan responded by immediately booking a ticket to China, sans a change of clothes.
There is a group of Apple folks in Cupertino right now, meeting to discuss whether the Foxconn publicity will blow over or blow up: into a Facebook cause, a Twitter trend, a consumer revolt. If it does, Mr. Khan will soon find himself walking off a flight to China, in yesterday’s clothes. If it doesn’t, we only have ourselves to blame.