NYTimes Magazine

Written by NYTimes Magazine Jun 21, 2010 12:00pm
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/magazine/27FOB-consumed-t.html

Armed with our laptopsand smartphones, our apps and Twitter accounts, consumers enjoy previously unimaginable access to marketplace information and sometimes even power. The Web crackles with peer reviews; with the right mobile device we can scan a bar code of something at the mall and compare the price with far-flung retail rivals. And we can vent and maybe achieve some satisfaction. Remember the online video of the slumbering Comcast repairman? Remember when the consultant and writer Jeff Jarvis blogged his unhappy laptop experiences into what became the “Dell Hell” public-relations nightmare? Add it all up, and it’s a significant shift, a “transparency triumph,” as Trendwatching.com put it not long ago.

On the other hand, every so often there’s a stark reminder of how opaque the relationship between us and our many purchases remains. You might own a device made by Dell, Hewlett-Packard or Apple, for instance, but had you heard of Foxconn Technology before multiple suicides by workers became a big news story? Foxconn’s factories in Shenzhen, China, with an estimated 400,000 employees, manufacture products for all three of those familiar tech names; the company has also reportedly made devices, equipment or components for Nintendo, Amazon, Cisco and others. It’s surprising enough, perhaps, that objects from such distinct brands are all produced by a single company. And as I read the stories speculating about whether working conditions played some role in the bizarre rash of suicides, I considered my own ever-proliferating gadget cache, wondering if any of my electronics came from a Foxconn facility.

I still don’t really know, because as far as I can tell, there’s no app for that. It’s not hard to find big-picture (and ideologically charged) assessments of global manufacturing, but when I asked the executive director of China Labor Watch if there was an easy way for a typical consumer to find out whether a specific device had, for instance, come from a Foxconn facility, he said no. I was reminded of the massive pet-food recall three years ago: while it involved dozens of brands, much of the food came from one low-profile Canadian manufacturer. (The problem was eventually linked to tainted wheat gluten, leading to the indictment of two Chinese companies and an American importer.) We’re accustomed to finding what we want with a simple click, but a lot remains murky until bad news pushes it into the open.

The point here is not to demonize foreign manufacturing in general or Foxconn in particular, but to ask some questions: What if finding out where and how our stuff was made was as easy as finding the lowest price or peer opinions? What impact would it have on consumer choices? Wouldn’t that be a more meaningful form of transparency in a global economy?

There are some efforts to offer consumers information beyond the familiar best deals. At ProjectLabel.org, you can type in the name of a company and receive numerical scores on matters like “worker treatment” and “waste management,” based on a combination of published reports and user votes. GoodGuide.com offers health, environment and “society” scores, based on its own database, for 65,000 products — even accessible with a bar-code-scanning iPhone app. And some companies offer their own information. The Gap, for example, publishes a lengthy report with summary assessments in various categories of its roughly 1,500 production sites in more than 50 countries. On one level it’s admirable that the company discloses, for instance, that as of 2008, 11.8 percent of its Southeast Asia factories received a “needs improvement” rating. But as a practical matter, how does that relate to your specific T-shirt or the khakis you’re considering?

In fairness, the supply chain for global companies that make electronics or apparel or furniture can be surrealistically complex. Yet when something exceptional like a recall or labor scandal happens, the connections to familiar brands are made pretty quickly. China Labor Watch, which was critical of Foxconn in the past, promptly encouraged consumers to write to the manufacturer’s famous-name clients urging that they “take immediate steps” to push their supplier to make life better for its workers. Following the unwanted attention, Foxconn raised worker salaries, among other measures, so maybe a peek into the normally opaque systems that manufacture the wares of well-known brands does make a difference.

If so, I suspect it’s the specificity that matters; knowing something about a particular laptop or pair of sneakers or pet food resonates with consumers more than an aggregate score or a big-picture summary. Imagine an open-source effort emerging to make that brand/production relationship much less opaque than it is. I don’t expect that most consumers would actually turn every impulse buy into a research project, but I bet it would change the way brands scrutinize their supply chains if they knew that every thing we buy was really, truly transparent.

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