The two faces of Apple

“Cognitive dissonance” is the way to describe what I’m feeling this morning after reading this amazing, blistering investigative piece in the New York Times about Apple and its Chinese manufacturing partners. This time former employees at Apple and Foxconn are speaking out, and the picture is worse than previously believed. Even the notion that “every company does business this way in China” (which many people, myself included, have espoused) turns out not to be true. Apple, according to the article, is worse than the others. It pushes suppliers so hard that the only way they can make a profit is to cut corners and hurt workers. If the article is to believed, Apple does this knowingly. While Apple talks a lot about inspecting factories and dormitories, and insisting on a code of conduct, in reality these inspections don’t accomplish very much. Meanwhile, factories blow up. Read the article and see if you can ever forget the story about the guy who got his face blown off and died when a completely preventable aluminum dust explosion ripped through his workspace.

It’s all incredibly depressing and disappointing.

And confusing, too, because this side of Apple contradicts so sharply with the Apple that all of us experience. It seems there are two different Apples — the one that deals with suppliers and the one that deals with customers. And the two are so different as to be almost unrecognizable. Earlier this week when Apple reported its jaw-dropping financial results for the fourth quarter, I wrote an article for the Daily Beast saying that Apple deserves every bit of its success, because it was winning the old-fashioned way, by making great products and delivering awesome customer service.

If you’re an Apple customer and you’ve ever had to deal with Apple customer service, you no doubt know what I’m talking about. They’re consistently amazing. They’re beyond pretty much anything I’ve ever experienced with any other company. They’re friendly. They’re generous. They’re kind. What’s more, this feels sincere. Apple truly has created a culture that is built around treating customers extraordinarily well. Moreover, over the years I’ve met people who work at Apple, and they are good people who really believe in what they are doing.

Of course Apple isn’t being nice to customers for the sake of being nice. It’s smart business. And it’s so obvious that you wonder why all companies don’t do this. For whatever reason, most don’t. But Apple does. It may be the biggest part of Apple’s value proposition — the fact that, if anything goes wrong, you know Apple will take care of it for you.

So maybe this two-faced culture makes sense from a business perspective: Treat customers like royalty + treat suppliers like slaves = profit.

But a real sense of discomfort arises from being the one who benefits from that bargain.

I don’t begrudge Apple its profits or its $100 billion in cash. The problem I’m having isn’t with Apple, but with me.

In our household we have two iMacs, four MacBooks, four iPhones, a Time Capsule, two Apple TVs, an old Mac Mini and countless iPods.

I love these products. I love Apple’s customer service. I’ve recommended Apple products to countless friends and relatives.

I hate feeling crappy about that. But right now I do.

Apple has enough money and enough influence to change this. They could make things right. It might not be easy, or cheap. But they could do it.

Apple could make the face they show to suppliers more like the one they show to us. I hope they will.

24 Responses to “The two faces of Apple”

  1. fluffy

    Well, of course Apple would want to optimize the experience of those who are paying them money, and to minimize the amount of money they have to pay back out. But going to this extreme is pretty reprehensible.

    I wonder how much of this has been under Tim Cook’s influence; he has a reputation for being ruthless about efficiency and the bottom line and so on (I’m sure you know the famous anecdote about the guy who he sent to Beijing in the middle of a meeting without even having a chance to pack any clothing).

    Stuff like this just adds fuel to my internal fire for switching back to Linux full-time. (It doesn’t hurt that I’m liking XFCE’s UI better than Lion’s these days. If only there were drawing programs worth a damn…)

    Reply
  2. Lonely Libertarian

    Naive and silly – as is the NYT piece…

    No supplier is forced to do business with Apple – they are all adults and have the right to NOT sign a contract or agreement.

    Apple would be irresponsible to it’s shareholder – and customers if it did not try and get the best quality at the best price.

    The jobs at suppliers are in many cases much better than the available alternatives to those that seek them out – and by most accounts there are no shortage of applicants.

    And why is that these investigative pieces never compare and contrast the conditions at Apple suppliers with those at Lenovo and Samsung and Sony?

    Reply
  3. Lewis

    I am pro business and understand the challenges Apple face regarding manufacturing in the U.S. However, I also am a trader/investor of stocks, bonds and options, and until Apple responds to the horrible working conditions within the Chinese factories producing Apple products, I am urging people to sell their shares in Apple and/or not to invest.

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  4. Chris O'Brien

    Dan: I’m feeling conflicted about all of this as well. The question on my mind: Do we as Apple consumers have an obligation to do more than just “hope” Apple does the right thing? (And really, this applies to the whole tech industry, since Apple may or may not be worse, but this is pretty much the way all this stuff gets built). Do we leave this fight to others and hope it turns out for the best? Do we get involved through some type of campaign or boycott (not just of apple, but all of tech)? Or do we just bury our heads in the sand?

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  5. Dan

    Utter nonsense. Anyone who has been to China and done business with suppliers there knows what the situation is. Compliance issues are only enforced in an effort to make China less competitive with American labor unions. That’s the real reason. Yes, what we would consider underage kids work at all factories. Have you actually BEEN to China to see what conditions those kids are damned to otherwise? The poverty is appalling. At least with some form of employment kids and adults in China can rise out of the gutter.

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  6. Lonely Libertarian

    Lewis,

    I assume you apply the same standard to Sony – Samsung – Sharp – etc…

    Or is it just Apple that must “respond to horrible working conditions”?

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  7. SpragueD

    You *hope* they will “make the face they show to suppliers more like the one they show to us”. But no mention of giving up your precious toys or recommending a boycott to push them in that direction.

    Reply
  8. Zobdax

    It would be nice if someone would make Lonely Libertarian work in these sorts of conditions. Then again, he’s said elsewhere that Somalia is his idea of aspirational government.

    As for Apple – nothing will change until it loses money having its suppliers treating workers like rubbish. As most Apple Fans would step on their grandma’s kidney to get a new iDevice, that’s not going to happen soon.

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  9. furicle

    So they should be grateful to be treated like shit instead of worse than shit? Sounds like the old arguments about slaves being better off than starving in Africa….

    Reply
  10. Dallas

    In reading “Country Driving” by Peter Hessler last year it seemed obvious that working conditions in China could be pretty bad.Although in most situations the worker is better off than(nearly starving) subsistence farming the he/she had left to work at the factories.Mr Hessler points to “Pleather” or fake leather which utilized a toxic solvent(DMF?) as part of the manufacturing process.Young women of childbearing age were recommended to avoid the pleather factories.Hard to employ older males(35 is old)could find work at pleather factories.
    It was also noted many migrant workers wanted to work long hours(60 to 70 hours per week) as they intended to send the money home to their ruralfamily, wanting to “max” out their income.
    So considering China makes 80% of most everything on the planet the concern here is more about the contrast between Apple’s warm fuzzy reputation here and the generally difficult conditions at factories in China including Apple’s subcontractors.

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  11. Boris

    Sorry – you are naive. If you are specialized in producing a product that only 10 customers worldwide buy directy, you are in a different position than a roofer that is offered too little for a job. If you habe been working with one customer for a long time you have specialized to this customers processes and needs. The biggest of these 10 customers has a tremendous amount of power over their supply base.

    I have been responsible for the purchasing data of the largest global maker of a central automotive component. We have less than 10 competitors to speak of and we do have suppliers in this situation. At the same time, our product is only purchased by about 10 global customers. So, my company is in this very situation from both the supplier and customer perspective.

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  12. Nick

    In other words you conclude that they would not like a raise and an 8 hour work day, with weekends off and paid vacation?

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  13. Dallas

    Since around 1980 20 million people a year have left “gripping” poverty in China. That is a level that has got to be hard to maintain every year!
    Some 300 million have made the transition.Keeping wages and costs low help maintain demand for their manufactured goods and keep moving people out of near starvation conditions(30 million died during the infamous “Great Leap Forward”in the 60s) and into the factories.It doesn’t hurt to keep their currency (Yuan) low on the world market as well.Western lifestyles and standards have improved over centuries and I suspect China will over the next few decades provide better conditions for workers.

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  14. Niels Christensen

    The Chinese government of course has ultimate responsibility. The accept it, they support the companies, they fight unions ( and they say they are socialists ).
    It’s ironical that the chinese in the 21 century should go to the same development stage that
    the western world did in the early industrial phase. The working conditions seems to be like the the hell the textile workers experienced in 19 century Britain.
    The worst thing is of course that thousands (hundreds of ?) of these young workers in their later life will suffer from the physical damages that the monotone work conditions creates.
    That could be Apple ( and the other companies) only lasting legacy.

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  15. Dallas

    Unfortunately the world has been in the past and continues to be a contrast in living conditions.15% of the current population is “near starvation” That is an improvement from 40% sixty years ago.IMHO we in the developed countries tend to forget the brutal existence of many on the planet.They are looking for any way to step up to the next level.

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  16. G Swa

    The original article made clear that Apple is the worst abuser in this area, it doesn’t absolve the rest of the tech industry, but it does help to point the finger of blame at the worst culprit.

    What I find staggering is that no-one mentions the super-profit that Apple make as PROOF of their abuse of the supply chain. Samsung, Sony etc are not reporting 40-50% profit margins, yet are using the same suppliers. Surely Apple has the available slack in its gross (as in disgusting, not gross/net) profit to increase costs a tiny percent and so guarantee better conditions for the workers making their stuff? Straightforward greed is at play here, no more, no less. If you don’t like it, don’t buy Apple.

    Reply
  17. John

    I’m glad to say then that I have a clear conscience as I do not own or use any Apple products. I’m not an iAnything guy. I am a conscientious objector!!!

    Reply
  18. William Spiritdancer

    yeah, but it’s from Forbes where “greed is good” so to me they are biased. If Forbes existed during colonial slavery they would write an excellent article on why it was good for everyone.

    Reply

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