image by Brian Fitzgerald (Brianfit on Flickr CC)

Many of us who use Apple computers have a hard time imagining using any another machine. Likewise, most iPhone users probably loathe the thought of switching to a “normal” mobile phone. My own MacBook is 4 ½ years old and held together by Duck Tape, but still works a charm. And I’ve no intention of bloody going back to a clunky PC either.

But there are some ethical points about Apple that bother me, despite their clean, forward-thinking image.

For one, the company’s constant upgrading of its products promotes excessive consumption and has elicited accusations of purposefully withholding technology.

Apple has an incredibly fast refresh rate of new products, gadgets that are very resource-intensive to make and use. The products people buy are out of date within 12 months. It’s the business model for the entire consumer electronics industry and it’s unsustainable. Apple’s biggest challenge is to address that consumption trend. There’s a limit to the sustainability claims any company can make when its business model is predicated on ever-increasing consumption.

–Tom Dowdall, Greenpeace International

This is especially worrying when the bloodiest war since WWII is still taking place in the Congo and is largely fueled by minerals used in laptops and cell phones.

As Johann Hari explains in the Independent:

The major UN investigation into the war explained how it happened. They said bluntly and factually that “armies of business” had invaded Congo to pillage its resources and sell them to the knowing West. The most valuable loot is coltan, which is used to make the metal in our mobile phones and games consoles and laptops. The “armies of business” fought and killed to control the mines and send it to us. The UN listed some of the major Western corporations fuelling this trade, and said if they were stopped, it would largely end the war.

Then there are the stories of working conditions in China. Workers at Apple’s supplier companies in China have in one case been poisoned by toxic glue and in another driven to suicide due to abuse in the workplace. Subcontractors have also been found to employ children in their factories.

Apple does seem to be making an effort to clean up its act and become greener thanks to efforts such as Greenpeace’s Green my Apple campaign. Hopefully they are dealing more aggressively with human rights issues regarding their subcontractors as well. Despite some governmental efforts, these are largely self-policing issues. So we, as consumers, should encourage the firms we patronize to behave more morally. We should also be willing to pay a bit more for non blood-soaked electronics or even (gasp!) use our products until they break before buying the newest, most up-to-date version. Duck Tape can be cool too.

Read more on the story in The Ecologist

Also, see Apple’s environmental footprint report.