How and why to boycott Apple

In the wake of two Times articles and an episode of This American Life exposing working conditions among Apple’s suppliers, various bloggers and commentators have called for a consumer boycott. One respected tech blogger even called the conditions “barbaric,” arguing that “the blame lies not with Apple and other electronics companies—but with us, the consumers.”

I find the argument that Western consumers owe a moral duty to overseas workers quite compelling, particularly with regard to luxury goods such as Apple’s. See Iris Marion Young on that point. Yet I don’t think a traditional boycott is a good idea, for two basic reasons. First, it is self-defeating. Putting aside the irony that such a boycott cannot be organized without using Apple products, the collective action problem is huge. Eventually an iPhone will break, or get dropped in the bathtub, or a new app or album will be needed, and the best-intentioned consumers will defect.

Second, what exactly is the ask? Should Apple leave China? That would be bad for the workers. Should Apple demand higher labor standards? Sure … but what would they be? Apart from egregious safety violations or forced labor, someone needs to articulate demands, and define success, or the boycott will just drag on, and on, and on.

But here’s an idea worth considering: a one-day boycott in which people refuse to purchase anything from Apple, iTunes, or the App Store. The demand would be that Apple commit to rigorous, external monitoring of its suppliers. More after the jump…

The thing is, promoting fair working conditions in developing countries is not rocket science, though it is politically difficult and very time-consuming. Inspections need to be unannounced, frequent, and thorough, monitors must have sufficient time and resources to understand what is really going on within factories, and monitors must have an independent base of power — oftentimes the media — through which they can ensure that companies implement their recommendations.

A one-day boycott could press Apple to take those steps, and could help build a consumer organization to hold Apple accountable in the medium- to long-term. It seems like a good idea to me for several reasons.

1. This is do-able. As noted above, people are not going to stop buying or using Apple products for any extended period. But if lots of consumers coordinated their refusal to buy on a particular day, and applied it to hardware and the App Store and iTunes, the calculus may change. That action would make a measurable impact on Apple’s sales that day, even if not on their long-term bottom line, signalling that consumers are seriously upset about the China revelations.

Whether Apple cares will depend on the numbers and the media coverage. I admit that I have no clue what a critical mass would be — a hundred thousand? five hundred? A million? (That *would* be cool, Sean Parker). But once critical mass is reached, and media took notice, Apple could not defend itself on grounds of consumer indifference, and their hip, semi-counter-cultural brand image could take a hit. That may effect their profits, or their projected profits, just as it did for Nike, Walmart, and other companies who have changed social policies in response to consumer pressure.

2. Social media dramatically reduce organizing costs. Through them, we can allocate small actions into something much, much bigger at no real cost, making it possible to effect major changes without demanding too much from any one individual. The Arab Spring showed this dramatically. A nice domestic analogue is the recent “move your money campaign,” which (among other things) got BofA not to increase debit card fees. That effort succeeded in part by facilitating individuals’ ability to move their money — something many already wanted to do — and in part by demonstrating that others were doing the same, making that action safe and appealing. It built momentum until the idea went viral.

In the Apple context, a small but well-organized group could wield the sort of “regulatory big stick” generally missing in the global labor context. Once enough people signed up, and demonstrated they were willing to take coordinated action, Apple would have to decide whether to ignore the group, dig in its heels, or bargain. Depending on the campaign’s visibility, the first two strategies might backfire, especially if the group is media-savvy and its demands are reasonable.

Moreover, assuming the one-day boycott went well, and the group had momentum, Apple would have to wonder what was coming next: a three-day boycott? A week-long one? Such uncertainty dramatically increases the pressure on a target — as Saul Alinsky once said, “It’s not how much power you have, it’s how much power the other side thinks you have.”

3. Organizing this would not be especially hard. A programming collective is needed to set up a website through which people could commit to not buy from Apple on some day in the future … perhaps May First, just to pick a day at random? <<Update: actually, February 23 might be best — that’s Apple’s annual meeting. Also, check out this Facebook page.>> Someone needs to put together proposed demands, poll people who have signed up regarding those demands, and do some loose coordination. If the project takes off, there should be media outreach, as well as outreach to independent Chinese trade unionists and democracy activists. As suggested by one of my students, local activists could also organize pickets and other media events at Apple stores on the day chosen.

Whatever (preferably minimal) structure is set up, it would need to be autonomous from anyone with a financial or political interest here. That means autonomy from the labor movement, and from companies, activists or organizations who have beef with Apple for some other reason. It would also need to be decentralized whenever possible, so as to reduce organizing costs and to encourage maximum participation.

4. Some thoughts on demands. In the short term, Apple could demand that their suppliers install ventilation so that factories don’t explode and create hotlines through which workers could “report abusive conditions and seek mental counseling.” In the longer term, Apple could sign onto the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) or adopt its strategies, which are the gold standard in this field and described nicely by Mark Barenberg in his excellent chapter in this book. The WRC seeks, through the monitoring process, to establish the conditions under which workers’ own democratic organizations can gain a foothold and promote workers’ interests in the long run.

In other words, Apple could demand that suppliers — and, frankly, the Chinese state — respect workers’ rights to form democratic and independent trade unions. Chinese workers do not enjoy that right today. Meanwhile, the company should not cut-and-run, even if they hit some bumps. Rather, Apple should articulate clear demands regarding working conditions to factory managers and to political actors in China, and should reward compliance by increasing their investment in China. While many have said that China is largely impervious to outside pressure on labor standards, that may no longer be true. As the Times’ points out, there is a sort of halo effect associated with producing for Apple, one which China will not want to lose.

Ultimately, Apple may be singularly well-positioned to effect change in China, and Apple consumers may be singularly well-positioned to effect change at Apple. Meanwhile, change in China and at Apple will have broader effects among developing nations and among tech companies. So a well-organized and targeted boycott may be a very, very good idea.

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