If I asked you whether you'd feel comfortable buying something responsible for funding conflict, that was produced under abysmal labour conditions or that caused air pollution, I expect you'd say 'no'. After all, each of these outcomes would challenge most people's personal ethics. And yet many of us regularly buy something that leads to such devastating impacts.
It's a situation that shows the importance of considering ethical issues beyond professional standards like integrity, objectivity and confidentiality. That's because ethics reaches far deeper than what's required by a profession. In fact, ethics are the principles by which we all live our lives – at home as well as at work.
Our personal ethics are influenced by the world around us (whether that's our families or social groups) as much as our organisational culture or the expectations of our profession. And our personal ethics manifest themselves in decisions about everything from what we eat to what we wear. But there's one area where many of us have an ethical blind spot and that's the product most of us have in our pocket or the palm of our hand: our smartphone.
Funding conflict and fuelling forced labour
The phone in your pocket contains many different metals, including tungsten, tin and tantalum. Most commonly sourced from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, these rare metals are known as 'conflict minerals' because they are produced, sold or traded by paramilitary groups. Trade in the minerals that end up in our pockets, say the European Commission, can "finance armed groups, fuel forced labour and other human rights abuses, and support corruption and money laundering".
Encouraging poor labour conditions
Once the raw materials have been procured, your phone is probably built in China, or another country where factory workers are expected to work overlong shifts with insufficient breaks for low wages. From an employer's perspective, Chinese labour laws are far less restrictive than those in the West, yet Apple and FoxConn (who manufacture phones for Apple, Google and Nokia) have both fallen foul of them, ending up in court for contravening some of the laxest labour laws in the world.
Polluting the world
After manufacture and sale, your phone will ultimately become obsolescent, because most phone manufacturers deliberately design them that way. And if you're not using it anymore, you may well throw your phone away. On average, we upgrade our phones every two years, resulting in annual sales (in the EU alone) of more than 200 million phones. So we probably throw away hundreds of millions of phones every year. This electronic waste usually ends up in Africa or Asia, where unprotected scrap workers burn it to extract the metals within. In doing so, they expose themselves to toxic fumes that also spread into the air and groundwater.
Overall, it's a startling reality that, as Tim Hunt from Ethical Consumer says, "the lifecycle of many mobile phones begins and ends with the exploitation of some of the world's poorest people". So if all this is enough to make you look at your mobile in a new light, what can you do?
The simplest option is to choose not to upgrade or at least keep your phone longer than you usually would. If you feel you simply must get a new phone, treat the purchase like any ethical decision: conduct research and analysis about the consequences of each potential course of action while considering your own deep-held values. As well as new phones from well-known providers, you might consider buying a second-hand or refurbished phone or purchasing a product developed by Fairphone, a company that works to create a fairer, more sustainable electronics industry.
This three-step process provides a quick framework that should help you decide on any ethical issue, and in this case, what to do about your next phone purchase:
1. Analyse the consequences
Do your research so you can identify who will be helped or hurt by each of your options, coming to a conclusion about which is likely to lead to the greatest benefits and the least harms. Organisations like Ethical Consumer provide useful guidelines on which phone brands have the best records on a range of different issues. For example, in a recent analysis, Apple and Google were deemed to have good conflict-mineral policies in place, while Samsung did less well.
2. Analyse your values
Think about the issues that matter most to you. For instance are you more concerned about taking action that supports conflict, that contributes to pollution or that endorses manufacturers' planned obsolescence strategies? On this basis, conclude which of your options is likely to cause you the least discomfort.
3. Make a decision
Come to a decision that takes both previous steps into account. Ask yourself which of the available options delivers the optimum combination of high benefits and low discomfort and plump for that. You can double-check this conclusion by considering whether there's more information you might be able to source and the extent to which you'd be happy defending your decision to friends and colleagues.
Finally, if you are upgrading, don't throw your old phone away – recycle it so the minerals within can be extracted (safely) and reused. It's a positive action that might make you feel better about all those negative impacts!
Anna Faherty is an author for accountingcpd. To see her courses, click here.