I was forwarded a recent New York Times article about Apple’s manufacturing in China that really got me thinking about the scope of Corporate Social Responsibility and the entire ecosystem that exists around multinational companies. The intended – and unintended consequences of the choice of actions by corporate management, and ultimately, what it says about our societies as a whole.
What really got me thinking in the article though was a story of the creation of the glass screen for the iPhone. Steve Jobs wasn’t happy with the prototype’s plastic screen, and demanded a glass alternative that wouldn’t scratch. Famously uncompromising, his insistence demanded the flexibility and instant change of manufacturing capacity and capability that could only be accommodated in another jurisdiction (China) primarily because of working expectations (both written and unwritten) that are no longer legal, expected or accepted in many other countries.
The article quotes a current Apple executive, saying “we shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers. The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.” In this case, however, what Apple needed, was workers who could be roused from their dormitory beds in the middle of the night for a 12 hour shift (Apple does monitor and publish an audit report of their suppliers). Obviously, Apple is only one of many companies choosing more “flexible” and “capable” locations for their manufacturing needs.
What does it say about our society that expediency and efficiency – valuable and real requirements of business today – have a trump card over how we treat and cooperate with other societies? I know many brilliant people have tackled this question, with few palatable answers – and the cynical among us might learn towards the idea of corporate activity as inherently pathological.
I am caught – ultimately, our corporations, our institutions, our interactions are defined by someone –and how these “someones” charged with the responsibility of directing organizations choose to interact and collaborate with the world are an example set for the people around them. I fall more with John Locke if only that I cannot bear the idea of Thomas Hobbes’ society that puts so little faith in its members. The question remains, in our global economy, is it possible to be a healthy, ethical corporation? How do we realize a global social contract – or are we simply unable to think beyond our immediate world and consider the reality of others?