The Environmentally Unfriendly, Pre-Mature Afterlife of the iPhone 5s

What’s the lifespan of an iPhone? Is it measured in the lifespan of the handset? Or is it measured in the lifespan of the battery? Most iPhone users will likely answer that the lifespan is determined by the battery, if only because – unlike the Samsung Galaxy S4 – consumers can’t change an iPhone battery without voiding the warranty. As a result, if you own an iPhone, and your battery is dying, you’re left little option beyond relying upon Apple’s $79 battery replacement service – and the one-week, mail-in wait that it requires. Under that circumstance, most consumers will opt for a new phone. After all, who can wait a week for a battery replacement?

Today at Bloomberg View I take issue with this Apple design choice, in an op-ed entitled, “Eco-Friendly Apple’s Dark iPhone Secret.” As I point out in the piece, the new iPhone 5s is more unfriendly than most, due in no small part to the fact that Apple has chosen to glue the new phone’s battery to the case, making it even more difficult to replace. Below, an image courtesy of ifixit, showing a removed battery and the glue strips that secure it.

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Surely Apple – a company that prides itself on reduced packaging – can figure out a way to allow consumers to switch out batteries from its most popular product. At Bloomberg View, I suggest that it might want to start looking for a way sooner rather than later.

Paul Krugman’s Communist Viagra Peddlers

Paul Krugman has seen the enemy, and that enemy is a Communist Viagra salesman. At least, that’s the message conveyed in the esteemed Nobel Prize winner’s Saturday blog post at the New York Times, “The Hacking of Michael Pettis.”

For those who don’t know of him, Michael Pettis is a finance professor at Peking University, and a well-known ‘China bear’ and skeptic. For China critics like Krugman, Pettis  and his blog are inspiration. In any event, a few weeks ago Krugman was amused to find Pettis’ blog filled with Viagra ads; on Saturday, amusement turned to alarm when he returned to Pettis’ blog to read that – due to the power of the Viagra hackers – Pettis has been forced to re-build his blog. There are plenty of conclusions to be drawn from Pettis’ blog predicament. Krugman, notably, chooses the most extreme:

“Commenters over there are suspicious — this sounds awfully persistent for Viagra salesmen, and you have to wonder whether someone doesn’t like frank assessments of Chinese economic prospects. And it makes me grateful that this blog is protected by Times firewalls etc., given the stuff that has happened outside that protection — e.g., fake Google plus, Facebook, and Twitter accounts in my name, to cite just the stuff I know about.”

Let’s be clear about what Krugman is implying here: Michael Pettis, noted skeptic of China’s economic prospects, has been transformed into a Viagra sales platform by “someone” who doesn’t like his economic analysis. .Who is that “someone?” Krugman won’t won’t say, but in this age of state-sponsored hacking it shouldn’t be too hard to connect the dots to … the Chinese Communist Party and its platoon of Viagra salesmen?

This is wacky stuff – black helicopters for the well-heeled Nobel Prize set, in a sense. It’s also baseless stuff: when I posted the story to facebook, my friend Rich Brubaker, founder of the Collective Responsibility consultancy, and an adjunct prof at the China European International Business School in Shanghai, left the following comment:

“Pettis’s blog has had this for three years. Started as a result of widespread WordPress event, and all my blogs had same problem. I sent him fix years ago… Clearly he isn’t bothered.”

That’s a reasonable, fact-based explanation, even if it leaves open the possibility of something far more serious. Krugman, if he hopes to avoid becoming a cartoon of himself, would be well-advised to learn from it.

UPDATE: In another facebook comment, Brubaker expands a bit on his communications with Pettis:

“Here is one of the links that I sent him, which describes the core issue that he was facing in 2011 (when I emailed him). I myself had to go through this for 2 blog sites, both WordPress, and a LOT of sties were reporting the same issue at the time. With many being hosted on Media Temple.”

The link Rich shared is here.

 

Suspend Me On Twitter (Updated)

[UPDATED BELOW]

On Friday afternoon I logged into my twitter account and was promptly informed that my account had been suspended. I’d been given no notice, no warnings, no indications whatsoever that something might be amiss (for the record: I am not a spammer, an account churner, or a follow-back participant; I don’t engage in personal attacks). Rather, the account was just summarily suspended, and that was that. I was offered a link to a page with possible explanations for the suspension, and a form that I could use to appeal the suspension – which I promptly did.

twitter2

So far, nobody from twitter has gotten back to me with an explanation, absolution, or further punishment. Of course, twitter isn’t a government, and they’re under no obligation to follow any kind of due process in such matters. But for twitter users like me, who have woven the service into their daily routines, the capricious, totally opaque nature of this account suspension is both disturbing and – in my case at least – a warning that I might want to reconsider how much I depend on it.

In any event, if somebody out there knows somebody at twitter who might be able to help me, I’d be deeply grateful. Having a suspended account isn’t the best PR, and I’d at least like to erase the stigma before people start thinking I’m a spammer or worse.

[UPDATE, SIX HOURS LATER:  So I go to bed suspended, and wake up restored. Yes, that's right: twitter restored my account. However, in keeping with the opaque nature of this episode, they didn't bother to send along an explanation. Rather, they just restored me. Were my emails the difference makers? Was I misidentified as a spammer? Did someone at twitter HQ grow tired of my China tweets? Perhaps, like my wife, they feel that it's time I update my profile photo? Anything is possible, I suppose, in the absence of any kind of explanation. The End.]

What Henry Blodget Didn’t Get About Foxconn

On Friday, China Labor Watch, a New York-based NGO that claims to be “dedicated to promoting workers’ fair redistribution of wealth under globalization,” announced that a “large-scale strike” had shut down a Foxconn factory that manufactures the iPhone 5. The group didn’t cite its sources for the story, but that didn’t stop several major news organizations (the credulous Reuters report was syndicated across multiple platforms) from parroting the press release, often verbatim. It was also picked up by several notable bloggers and commentators, including Henry Blodget, co-founder, CEO, and editor of The Business Insider. Below, a screen grab of Blodget’s Friday afternoon editorial.

On first glance, the photo is the perfect complement to the headline: young Asian women in red sashes marching through a factory zone. If they can’t stop iPhone 5 production, nobody can!

But now, let’s take a closer look at that photo (you can click to the original, here). I’ve blown it up and grabbed a representative sample, below.

Two things to note in this photo. First off, the characters on the red sashes very clearly spell out 奇美電子- Chimei Electronics, a company better known as Chimei Innolux, one of the world’s largest flat panel manufacturers. Now, as it happens, Foxconn is a major shareholder in Chimei Innolux, and it partners with Chi Mei to manufacture touch-screens. But Chi Mei is not Foxconn, and thus the above photo does not show Foxconn employees.

Second, those who read the China Labor Watch press release will note that it describes a work stoppage. Now compare that to the photo: these girls are smiling, walking in lock-step, and wearing red sashes. Nobody is wearing a Foxconn uniform (for a sense of what those look like, see Rob Schimitz’s film taken in the Foxconn Longhua facility a few months ago), or any other kind of worker uniform. Rather, they’re in their civilian clothes, and they appear to be engaging in a kind of parade. Is it a parade in support of Chimei Electronics? Maybe, but admittedly I have no idea.

But here’s the thing: Henry Blodget, or whomever he employs as a photo editor, did have an idea. And that idea, as tweeted by my friend Abe Sauer (who pointed out the photo and headline to me in the first place), goes a little something like this: “group of Asian people all walking in unison = protest action.” It’s not an uncommon way of thinking about China, and Asia, especially among commentators and correspondents with little to no experience interacting with Chinese workers. Nonetheless, common or not, you’d hope that organizations and individuals who aspire to some kind of role in commentating about China and its labor situation would have the good sense if not the dignity to avoid gross stereotypes (based on skin color, no less) and generalizations in their pontificating.

[UPDATE: I was just asked who took the photo in question. Answer: I don't know. Blodget/BI didn't run a photo credit.]

[UPDATE 2: Then there's the matter of the image that China Labor Watch posted with its press release announcing the strike - and which has been widely reproduced (for example, at PC World and Engadget). That image is below, credited - on China Labor Watch's website - to "Ye Fedao/worker for Foxconn Zhengzhou."

Does this image strike anyone as depicting a strike or work stoppage? In it, workers appear to be lined up and awaiting something. Note the girl in the foreground idly checking her phone. What is she and the others waiting for so patiently? A bus to the factory? A bus to the dorms? Whatever it is, there's little evidence in this photo to suggest that she and others are waiting for a strike. But that didn't stop China Labor Watch and others from running the grainy image. They, like Blodget, appear to be under the impression that when groups of Asian laborers gather, they must be protesting. The truth is far more normal than that - unless, of course, you insist on viewing China's factory workers as a perpetually persecuted class just waiting for a chance to rise up. But this has never been true, and is even less true now, as amply documented in several recent stories, of which Marketplace's series, End of the Great Migration, is one of the best.

In any event, over at Forbes, Tim Worstall has done a nice job breaking down the media flubs on what's increasingly looking like a non-strike, non-story. Way to go, China Labor Watch. For a more nuanced, and humanizing view of Chinese factory workers, see Leslie Chang's fine essay on the subject that ran last week on CNN.]

[UPDATE 3: Stan Abrams at China Hearsay just posted an excellent run-down and wrap-up of the confused coverage of the non-strike. Well worth reading, here. China Labor Watch, it seems, has much to answer for in this debacle.]

[UPDATE 4 - 12 hours after first post:  Henry Blodget has now replaced the Chimei photo with ... the China Labor Watch photo that ran with the press release. That is not progress.]

 

The Land of a Million Scrapped Televisions

Below, a photo I recently took in a warehouse roughly 80 km from an inland Chinese city with a population around 8 million people. If it’s not clear in the image, those are televisions. Tens of thousands of scrapped, no-longer-wanted televisions.

So let me ask a question of you, dear reader: based upon the information just given, from which country do you think those scrap televisions originated?

If you are an environmentally aware European or American, your likely answer is … the United States or Europe! After all, two decades of extensive (if often shallow) reporting by journalists and activists have created a very compelling and believable story whereby the developed world “dumps” its so-called e-waste on developing countries like China. It’s a compelling narrative, and one that appeals to the developed world’s outsized need to feel guilty about its presumed effects upon the developing world.

The only problem is: that narrative is no longer the only one available to explain why a warehouse on the outskirts of a major Chinese metropolis is teeming with tens of thousands of televisions (the frame of this photo excludes perhaps another 40% of the inventory present).

That other narrative, which journalists and activists in the developed world have failed to tell (for reasons of their own) is this one: China has grown rich enough to start throwing away its own e-waste. According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission, China is now throwing off 160 million appliances (computers, televisions/monitors, washing machines, air conditioners, and refrigerators) per year that must be recycled, and that number is growing by 20% annually.

In other words: the scrap televisions in this warehouse were all used, and then thrown away, in China. There isn’t an imported – an allegedly dumped – scrap television in the entire lot.

But here’s the important thing: what you see in this warehouse is just a fraction of what’s been generated over the last couple of months in one metropolis in a country that has several dozen of greater size and wealth. You can multiply what you see here by 10,000 and you wouldn’t come close to approximating the number of Chinese-generated waste televisions and other appliances currently being generated, warehoused, and recycled, across China at this very moment. Imported scrap televisions don’t come close to equaling these kinds of volumes.

In Junkyard Planet,  my upcoming book with Bloomsbury Press, I’ll explain the process by which these particular televisions are recycled. The technology is Chinese-developed, environmentally secure, and it actually recovers more re-usable metals, plastics, and glass that comparable systems in the so-called developed world. But more than that, it re-writes the very tired, very incorrect narrative that the best means to recycle old televisions, computers and other appliances is to keep them in the developed world at so-called environmentally secure recyclers (“environmentally secure” being a term that developed countries implement and expect developings ones – with less experience and resources – to follow).  That’s simply not the case, anymore. China, the world’s second largest consumer of consumer electronics, is very quickly figuring out how to be one of its best recyclers of them. The thousands of televisions in this warehouse are just the start.

 

Why are new Samsung and HP computer parts being dumped in Guiyu? Follow the bar codes …

Several months ago I had the opportunity to travel to the notorious southern Chinese e-waste recycling hub of Guiyu. It was an interesting visit during which it became apparent that many assumptions currently held about e-waste processing in China are no longer current. Of these, perhaps the most important is the blanket assumption that foreign e-waste is the primary cause and driver of Guiyu’s – and China’s – continued role as a global e-waste hub. By and large, that’s no longer the case.

Reporting that I did in Guiyu, and elsewhere, indicates that fully half of the e-waste currently being processed in China is generated in China. American and European e-wastes, meanwhile, are a declining percentage of the overall level of waste being processed in the area, while Southeast Asian e-waste – specifically from Thailand and Malaysia – becoming the fastest growing contributor. Continue reading

The Labor Activist Who Just Can’t Do It Without His iPhone. [Updated, with a response to critics.]

OR “Is Mike Daisey Actually a Guerilla Marketer in the Employ of Apple?”

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Late last week activists delivered 250,000 signatures demanding that Apple improve working conditions for workers employed by its Chinese manufacturers. One of those petitions, organized by change.org, specifically cited the American radio program, This American Life, and a segment that it aired on January 6, Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory. Mike Daisey, if you’ve never heard the program, is an American storyteller who, in the course of the segment, recounts his travels to Shenzhen and the gates of Apple’s major contractor, Foxconn. The picture he paints is not pretty (nor is it, I believe, accurate much less journalism – but that’s for another time) and as a result Daisey has become – in very short order – the de facto spokesman for iPhone users wanting to feel better about their next iPhone purchase.

A few weeks after Daisey’s piece ran, the New York Times ran articles of its own (needless to say, far more rigorous than Daisey’s ‘story’). But Mike Daisey is the one who got the ball rolling on the bourgeois outrage, and it’s no exaggeration to say that without Mike Daisey, there probably wouldn’t be 250,000 signatures sitting next to someone’s desk at Apple.

Anyway, yesterday I had the opportunity to join Daisey (and two other guests) on To the Point with Warren Olney, a terrific LA news talk show on which I sometimes have the honor to appear, to discuss Apple’s labor practices. It was, I think, an interesting conversation (downloadable here), worth hearing in its entirety. But for now I’d like to point my readers to a curious exchange between the host,  Warren Olney, and Mr. Daisey. In it, you’ll note that Mr. Olney would like to know if Mr. Daisey – inspiration for hundreds of thousands of Apple petition signers, still uses Apple products. For those listening at home, cue up to 33:15 in the podcast:

Warren Olney: So Mike Daisey, back to you, our author and performer doing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and also has been to China, have you given up your Apple products? As I recall, the last time we spoke you hadn’t.

Mike Daisey: That’s totally irrelevant to anything we’re actually talking about.

Warren Olney: Why? Isn’t the point here to reach the consumer?

Mike Daisey: If I throw away – because if I throw – if I throw away my devices, I will not be able to interact with the world. I wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation with you. It’s about reforming how the industry fundamentally works.

I am in no position to speak to Mr. Daisey’s particular circumstances, but – and I asked this during the show – couldn’t he have exchanged his iPhone for a land line, instead?

[UPDATE 2/15: I've received a few emails from folks writing to say, "Well, yes, but Mike Daisey is very upfront about the fact that he's a fanboy." Yes, he is. And that's why I'd be much more impressed with his moral seriousness if he backed up his moral outrage at worker suicides, workplace accidents, and long hours, with some self-sacrifice. But what, in fact, has Daisey sacrificed in his pursuit of justice for Foxconn's workers?

It's really no different for the 250,000 folks who signed petitions that ask Apple, in polite language, to change its practices without threatening to stop using Apple products. It's a really convenient cake-and-eat-it-too sort of solution to a very bourgeois conundrum: how do I feel good about purchasing expensive products that I know are made in factories? Sign a petition that asks the manufacturer to improve those factories! Then go buy another iPhone feeling like I've done my part.]

[Disclosure: I own two iPods, and I feel no guilt about how they were manufactured. I've visited factories like the ones in which they were assembled, and I consider the conditions in those facilities to be far superior to the base-line average for Chinese factories, and a good place for young Chinese with minimal educations to start work. And, apparently, so do the thousands who continue to line up for the opportunity to manufacture Apple products in China.]