A Norwegian TV channel invited three teenage fashion bloggers to Cambodia to make clothes. The teary sequences that follow are predictable. Women workers in Cambodia have been struggling for decent working conditions, exposing themselves to violence, for years.
We immediately tried to imagine all of the tech fanboys and gadget-obsessed bloggers on our timeline at a Malaysian parts factory, or in China on an assembly line. Not likely!
As immoral as some of the fashion world can be, there is a conscience there that we simply do not see in the consumer electronics world. We are old enough to remember the boycotts of Nike in the 90s – in fact, they were crucial in shaping our critical consciousness as teenagers.
There is also the concept of “Fast Fashion” – there is a name for accelerated consumption cycles, and there are people working to draw attention to the negative impacts of this. There are journalists like Lucy Siegle, calling out fashion industry greenwashing and attempts to stifle the voices of workers.
And ethical fashion companies abound.
Where are the equivalents for electronics?
We believe that people who buy and use electronics are capable of empathising. But we have created elaborate empathy buffers. Not just in relation to the people who make our gadgets, but to the people most impacted by climate change – by the massive greenhouse gasses emitted in electronics production.
It is as if the people impacted by our electronics consumption are hidden beneath the slick user interface. In our clothes, when we put them on our bodies, we see labels “inspected by …” and “Made in …”. We are reminded that people made them.
We “unbox” our electronics and we barely even treat them as objects we own. If there are actual physical labels or printed information on them, we ignore. They are interfaces to an immaterial “cloud” – which is far from immaterial.
We are members of Good Electronics, a network of organisations fighting to improve conditions across the electronics supply chain. Their work is absolutely crucial, but so much remains under the mainstream radar.
The popularity of Fairphone is proof that people are thirsty for alternatives.
Our challenge is to break through the buffers – we should not have to work on a factory floor to feel something for the people on the other side.