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Shopping our way to something better



After The New York Times ran an article in January headed "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad" a lot of people were outraged.

The story hung on an explosion and fire in a factory in Chengdu owned by the Taiwan-based multinational and major Apple partner, Foxconn. More than 120,000 people work at the Foxconn Chengdu factory on 24/7 assembly lines, most of them young Chinese from rural areas.

The blast immediately killed two people and injured dozens, including 22-year-old college grad, Lai Xiaodong, who worked in the area where iPad cases were polished. Two years earlier, more than 100 workers in another plant in China were injured when they had to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens.

Lai later succumbed to his injuries. Reported as earning US$22 a day for 12-hour shifts, he subsequently became something of a poster child for worker abuse in China, which has "the largest, fastest and most sophisticated manufacturing system on earth."

"That system," says the Times, "has made it possible for Apple and hundreds of other companies to build devices almost as quickly as they can be dreamed up." We consumers snap them up like alligators.

As the Times story gained traction, I wondered if people would react and actually change their iSomething buying patterns.

Then there are all the folks who have no idea how poor most of the labour practices are that produce their latest e-gizmo or appliance. But if they did, would they reach for another choice? Or embarrass companies like Apple into changing?

 I dream of the day when consumers can instantly see how sustainable their "consumption" is before they buy.

We wouldn't have to dig out our questionably-produced iPhones or fumble for that tatty paper or shopping guide to learn what to buy and what not to. And we certainly wouldn't have to wait for policy makers who are asleep at the wheel to start driving a better world.

Whether it's a movie ticket, a bag of noodles or a sweater, I picture an appealing, easy-to-understand, sliding-scale rating system for the resource footprint of each product or service we buy — both on the environmental and social side.

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