Even the most unenlightened consumers have a vague ethical awareness when it comes to clothes and food. You don't have to be Naomi Klein to release that somewhere along a production line that can manufacture supermarket jeans for £2, someone is getting at best short-changed, and at worst exploited. Likewise, thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, most consumers realise that a £1.99 chicken probably lived in a cramped, filthy cage with hundreds of other miserable birds and excrement for company.
Cheap usually comes with human and environmental costs . However, while the ethical implications of low-price food and fashion are now ingrained in the collective consumer consciousness, the same does not follow when it comes to technology. Conscientious considerations rarely affect purchases of computers and flat screen televisions. Even though historically these goods have been getting cheaper, most buyers rarely stop to think about the ethical impact of that price degradation or the environmental consequences of buying a television that will be outdated and replaced within a few years.
In fact our perception of consumer electronics manufacturers is predominantly upbeat as highlighted by survey carried out earlier this year by Covalence, a company that tracks the ethical reputation of multinationals. It found that technology companies are portrayed as the most ethical in the world with IBM, Intel and Cisco at the top of the list. Against this backdrop, our obsession with the latest gadgets and gizmos appears almost healthy. Except it isn't. Cheap technology, like cheap chicken, comes at a price, and this price has been bought sharply into focus by a rash of employee suicides at the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer in China. In the first six months of this year Foxconn, which makes iPods, Dell computers, Nokia mobile phones and assembles Nintendo Wiis, has seen 13 staff suicide attempts, 10 of which proved fatal. Critics blame the tragedies on inhuman hours and gruelling working practices carried out under an oppressive regime.
Foxconn is one of the thousands of production companies using an abundance of cheap labour that has for the past three decades powered the low-cost, export-oriented manufacturing industry fuelling China's rapid economic growth. Salaries for these workers have failed to move with the times, leaving the vast majority hugely underpaid. Surveys in Central China show factory workers earn between £100 and £150 a month to toil on production lines for at least 60 hours a week.
The Foxconn deaths were hugely embarrassing for Apple, coming as they did on the eve of the much-hyped iPad launch. Foxconn managers have since responded by employing psychologists, punchbags for frustrated workers, a 30 per cent wage rise and safety nets around its roofs to stop workers leaping from them. Apple vowed to send a team to the factory to evaluate conditions and reiterated a commitment to ensure safety, respect and dignity for workers throughout its supply chain.
Disturbingly, however, it is not the first time Apple has been made aware or problems at Foxconn. In 2006 an evaluation team was sent to the manufacturer's Shenzhen plant following reports of employee abuses which included allegations that workers were forced to work overtime, were punished by being made to stand to attention for long periods and housed in overcrowded dormitories. In addition, earlier this year Apple admitted that another factory it used was found to be employing child labour and 62 workers at a further supply facility manufacturing Apple and Nokia goods were reported to have been poisoned on the production line by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause muscular degeneration and blur eyesight.
Although many technology firms have strict codes of conduct for suppliers, these incidents should have set alarm bells ringing for ethical consumers. Instead of concern however, Apple devotees still queued overnight last month to be the first iPad owners before being whooped to the tills by enthusiastic sales staff. No one in this consumer carnival mentioned overworked, poisoned Chinese factory drones.
The electronic industry's ethical problems do not just apply to manufacture. When goods are finsihed with, they are dumped in the third world, where they pollute and poison. E-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of international law. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared or "grey market" electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China. So why do we appear to care so little about moral dimensions when we buy technology?
As Xavier Petre, co-founder of United Pepper, one of the few ethical electronics firms, explains, our relationship with technology is not as personal as it is with other goods.
"We care less about technology from an ethical point of view because in most cases our ethical awareness starts with the products we use the most. Food and clothes are products we need to survive, they are necessary, unlike electronics which not everybody uses," he says.
His Belgium-based company audits the goods it sells for ethical standards and was the first to be recognised as a fair trade electronics company. But producing ethical electronics is difficult because of the amount of components from different sources each piece of hardware contains. To carry out its mission United Pepper formed a partnership with a former clothes manufacturer in Vietnam to make its goods and employs external auditors to survey the production process. In response to the iPad, the company recently sourced a touch-pad tablet computer that it has made as an ethical alternative by replacing components with greener alternatives like low-consumption screens and bamboo plastic casings. Xavier maintains that ethical awareness is spreading in the technology industry but is driven more by companies worried about reputation than by consumers. Firms like IBM are members of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a group that developed the electronic industry code of conduct which is used by 42 EICC members and many of their suppliers.
Xavier continues: "On a corporate level, there is more auditing and companies now want to be seen to be ethical. For consumers, awareness is less but it is starting. Some people cannot afford to spend 10 to 15 per cent more for ethical goods and others simply do not want to pay extra. Price is often the top consideration.
"And it is never possible to be 100 per cent fair trade because of all the factors and components but what we try to do is be as transparent with our customers as possible. There is a growing market but today it is not particularly profitable. It is expensive to re-engineer goods to be greener and ethical. We do it because we believe in it. It is a day-to-day struggle to convince consumers that this is the direction we should be moving in."
Companies that see the value of having ethical brands can sign up to an accreditation body like the Ethical Company Organisation in the UK which audits members and produces the annual Good Shopping Guide for consumers.
Alternative consumer organisation The Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA) has been supporting the growth of the ethical market, since 1987 and claims concerns about the ethical implications of consumer electronics are being increasingly voiced by the young.
Spokesman Rob Harrison says: "Young people are seriously concerned about the social and environmental problems surrounding the production and disposal of their consumer electronics. A majority would be willing to pay 10 per cent more for their electronic devices if they can be certain they are produced responsibly.
"The technology reviews on our ethical consumer website are some of the most popular we produce. Companies like Dell have also researched this and found that consumers do care about this stuff and are investing increasing amounts in supply chain social and environmental monitoring."
Electronics manufacturing however, does come with its own unique problems. Harrison continues: "Unlike food and clothing it is difficult for ethical entrepreneurs to set up back bedroom super ethical alternatives. Setting up an electronics factory is that bit more difficult."
While ethical awareness grows slowly at the top end of the technology supply chain, on the factory floor in China, where many of the labour abuses are reported, there is hope as workers take matters into their own hands.
The new generation of migrant labourers are becoming more confident about their bargaining power and in the last few months employees have staged strikes in several factories. Migrant labourers are now pickier about their wages, benefits, social status and working conditions.
Although China still has a large surplus of workers thanks to the movement from the countryside to the cities, the seemingly unlimited pool of cheap labour that gives China its competitive manufacturing edge is predicted to dry up in coming years.
According to Sir William Arthur Lewis, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, the industrial wages in developing countries begin to rise quickly when the supply of surplus labour from the countryside tapers off. China has already hit this "Lewisan turning point", according to some experts.
Policymakers are now trying to increase incomes to lay the foundations for an economy driven by domestic demand and are aware that easing the tension between workers and their bosses is crucial for China's continuing growth. Better conditions for workers will remove at least one ethical hurdle from the complex moral equation posed by consumer electronics. And a conscience-clear iPad, mobile phone or games console really would be worth queueing up for.Reuse content