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Op-ed: Apple's Ethical Smokescreen

Bijgewerkt op: 24 jul. 2023

Apple boasts of making life-saving products, but should we trust the self-proclaimed ethical giant? The reason for Apple’s claim is twofold, starting with their new iPhone series. The phone features an 'Emergency SOS' function; allowing users to seek help in emergencies. However, it’s not so much the emergency option on the phone that’s lifesaving, according to Apple. Rather, Apple and their partner (RED) were referring to the fact that the new phones are available in a red color. A percentage of the income generated through the sales of red phones contributes directly to a global fund that combats pandemics, like COVID-19 and HIV. This may appear to demonstrate ethical awareness, but on closer examination it's merely a marketing ploy.

There are a couple of arguments in favor of Apple. For starters, the red phone campaign has been running for longer than just this series. Apple has raised nearly 270 million dollars over the last 15 years, which supposedly has been contributed to research on pandemics. To further bolster Apple's image as an ethical giant, they highlight their donation of $725 million to organizations worldwide through the Apple Employees Giving program over the past decade. The two charity structures together result in Apple positioning itself as a conscious and ethical multinational.

With the Employees Giving Program, however, there's a catch: Apple only donates if their employees engage in volunteer work or make direct donations themselves. This means that Apple's contributions depend solely on the efforts of their wageworkers. The company doubles every hour their workers contribute and every donation they make, perpetuating a system where the generosity of its workers is essential for Apple's philanthropy. In total, the contribution to charity by Apple over the last 15 years through their two main projects amounts to 995 million dollars.

Let's put it into perspective to see if this actually confirms Apple's ethical claims. Over the last decade, the income of Apple totals to a whopping 532,59 billion dollars. This means that the amount that has been given to charity over the last 15 years is represented with just a decimal after the comma of their income. Indeed, their income after taxes, which is largely available for (re)investments.

Considering these figures, it should come as no surprise that the money Apple has donated through their two main projects is minimal compared to what they have returned to their shareholders. The donations that Apple has given to charity over the last 15 years is about 3,6 percent of what the company returned to their shareholders. Not the total returns over that span of time, of course. The amount that Apple has donated to charity over the last 15 years is equal to 3,6 percent of their returns to shareholders in the third quarter of 2022 alone. It goes without saying that this is close to zero in the light of the total returns to shareholders over the indicated period of time.

Apple's minimal charitable contributions indicate a lack of genuine motivation to support charitable causes. When considering intrinsic motivation, the situation appears even grimmer. The two campaigns serve as a smokescreen, as Apple will only donate if customers explicitly choose to buy a product that has ethical implications. It is the responsibility of the customer – not the company consistently ranked among the top 7 of the Forbes 500 – to make the ethical choice. Moreover, approximately 50 percent of the profit gained from (RED) products serves as an additional income source for Apple. One might be convinced of buying a red iPhone only because of its ethical aspect, meaning that the tech company generates more revenue when compared to the absence of such a phone.

The Apple Employees Giving program also raises concerns. Donations by Apple are contingent upon employees' continuous volunteering efforts or sustained donations. While it is commendable that some money is contributed, it places undue pressure on employees to maintain their voluntary or monetary contributions, even if these become unfeasible. This burden can have adverse consequences for employees, with potential burnouts as a result.

What if Apple invested in more systemic solutions for struggling communities instead?

Sure, the tech giant might be convinced that the money they reinvest in other ways is also enriching the lives of Apple's customers. It remains questionable, however, if innovations like the 'always on' lock screen contributes to customer wellbeing. Besides, the very production of Apple products often involves exploitation and disruption in communities along their value chains worldwide. Because of this, the development of new features will do more harm than good to humanity as a whole.

It should be clear that the campaigns surrounding charity are purely a marketing strategy by Apple. Research confirms that these types of campaigns 'redirect the consumer gaze to specific narratives and sub narratives that highlight their own positive [...] efforts.' Apple positions itself as a savior while remaining largely inactive. This diversionary tactic also deflects attention from Apple's own grave violations, such as human trafficking and slavery.

In conclusion, Apple's campaigns serve to distract customers, employees, and society as a whole. The ethical image of the company is built on the exploitation of their employees and customers. The notion that individuals are personally responsible for issues like researching illnesses and global pandemics also remains a part of the marketing image of Apple. As is evident, the amount generated through charity initiatives of Apple pales in comparison to the turnout for their shareholders. If Apple really wants to position itself as an ethical giant, it should do so through their own resources; without enforcing individual responsibility in people with little means. Only then, the giant can make the claims it does.

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