To Bury Caesar, Not To Praise Him
On August 8th 2011, Ray Anderson, ‘radical industrialist’ and chairman and founder of Interface Inc. passed away without the world noticing. Barely two months later, the death of Steve Jobs became an inescapable subject of discussion. Canonized by the mass media, Jobs is referenced as the doyen of visionary leadership and Apple products as the utmost examples of purity and perfection. In truth, Apple represents everything that’s wrong with design, manufacturing, and the global economy. Like the soap in Fight Club, our ignorance is being sold back to us; reconstituted hyperbole elaborately packaged under the auspices of good design.
“Steve Jobs has always understood that, as human beings, our first relationship with anything is an emotional one... A device isn't just a sum of its functions; it's something that should make you smile, you should cradle, you should love, you should have an emotional relationship with”. When it comes to Apple one of the biggest misunderstandings we have is of the differences between software and hardware. Apple’s core competency was founded on software. But digital and physical are vastly different things to bring to life. The above quote by Stephen Fry highlights this misunderstanding very well, yet he inadvertently proposes that the ends justify the means. Because of engineered obsolescence - the process that makes an iPhone redundant with the unveiling of each new model and cost prohibitive to repair - the emotional relationship we have is with the way it works, not the device itself. If it gets wet or the display shatters into a million pieces, we don’t skip a beat when a brand new one magically appears from behind the counter. What Steve Jobs and his counterpart Jonathan Ives led Apple to develop was elaborate, delicate, and over-engineered hardware as pedantically designed as the software itself.
There is no love, and no emotional relationship involved in the manufacturing of Apple devices on the factory floor of Foxconn, the overwhelmingly massive complex in Shenzen that is responsible for making almost half of the world’s consumer electronics, as underpaid and overworked employees keep costs down but profits up. Jobs was never known to have visited any of these factories, and when commenting upon the self contained metropolis said “Foxconn is not a sweatshop. They’ve got restaurants and swimming pools… for a factory, it’s a pretty nice factory." If you subscribe to the argument that says 75 cents an hour is better than no job at all, then Foxconn is already one step ahead of you. Over the next few years they will replace an unspecified number of employees with one million robots ‘designed to improve efficiency and combat rising labor costs’. It appears that cheap labor will never be cheap enough.
In 2011 Apple posted a revenue of $108 billion dollars, due in no small degree to offshore manufacturing. While labor costs are important, the key phrase with Chinese manufacturing is ‘supply chain’, which is a fancy way of describing the hundreds of individual components that are assembled together to make a product. In the same way that Apple leaves the manufacturing of its neat metal boxes to third party vendors such as Foxconn, it doesn’t make any of the technological wizardry that powers them either, such as the A5 processor found in both the iPhone and iPad. That’s made by Samsung, the same company Apple has recently locked horns with in a litigious bickering match regarding several design patent infringements, one of which contests that the roundness of the corners on the Galaxy Tab are too similar to that of the iPad.
Like so many massive companies being subjected to increased scrutiny by environmental advocacy groups in recent years, Apple has been pushed to better communicate their compliance. On their Environmental Progress page, Apple boasts that while profits increased 74 percent from 2008, greenhouse gas emissions increased ‘only’ 57 percent. Anywhere else you look the focus is about reducing emissions from 1990 levels (in the case of Hewlett-Packard the goal is a reduction of 70 percent). Further feel good points are won with new techniques that Apple say has made the manufacturing of their devices less wasteful; “Even the iPad became 33 percent thinner and up to 15 percent lighter in just one generation”. Let us not confuse an honest attempt at sustainability with marketing jargon. A product like the iPad that is about consumption and fashion rather than creation and function cannot be used as an example of environmental proactivity. Greenwashing a product that is a niche excess to begin with highlights the inanity of a flawed system. If a single, average laptop takes 40,000 pounds of raw material to be brought into being then we have truly hit the peak of unsustainable behavior in every sense of the word.
The unprecedented levels of resources and influence that Apple wields are for nought without responsible leadership, and leadership is not about the blind worship of one person. It is not about egotism or being pedantic. It is not about the illusion of simplicity and perfection at the expense of countless others. It is about recognizing the difference between profit and greed, and therefore Jobs’ legacy and leadership up until his death shouldn’t be used as a compass to get to the future. We should instead look to the likes of Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, or Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, as examples of leaders who respect the people who work for them, the environment, and its precious resources.
Apple, and the consumer electronics industry as a whole, doesn’t respect the transience of the technology they are selling you. With all his influence Steve Jobs could have departed radically from a business-as-usual approach and lead the charge to create a truly sustainable and ethical model. A local model. A model that responsibly inspires everyone from budding designers to experienced businessmen. The connectivity and productivity that Apple devices deliver has been invaluable, but drooling over them as objects of desire without respect to their origins is a mistake we can no longer afford to make. We have to recognize that the design of these products thinly veils a marketing machine which in turn serves the short-term needs of shareholders: to make more money next year than the year prior. Until now we’ve been happy to sit back and watch the show, mesmerized by the illusion but disinterested in the reality.
This brings us back to Ray Anderson. In 1994, his company’s twenty-second year, Ray “steered Interface on a new course—one designed to reduce their environmental footprint while increasing profits,” and wanted Interface to be “the first enterprise in history to become truly sustainable—to shut down the smokestacks, close off its effluent pipes, to do no harm to the environment and take nothing not easily renewed by the earth.” We should be talking about what Ray and others like him have quietly changed, not what Steve Jobs loudly perpetuated.
“For those who think business exists to make a profit, I suggest they think again. Business makes a profit to exist. Surely it must exist for some higher, nobler purpose than that.”
-Ray Anderson, 1934 - 2011.