Hundreds of people are lined up outside the Apple Store. A new I-Phone is about to go on sale, and people are clearly keen on being first in the world to get the new device. I amble down the queue, and there is an excited buzz about the crowd. It feels like they are about to get front row seats at a Lady Gaga concert. Two teenagers sit on the ground, playing presumably on their old I-phones. In some ways they must have good lives. If you can get excited about buying a Cell phone, well you can get excited about almost anything.
An uneasiness seeps into me as I wander past the end of the queue and continue on my way. Certainly all this buying will be good for Apple Shareholders. More sales equal more profits and bigger dividends. The employees back in China, Korea and Taiwan who make the I-Phone will be employed for a few more months. And the government will certainly like it. People buying stuff stimulates the economy and helps provide growth.
What troubles me though is what goes into an I-Phone. Rare metals such as platinum, palladium, gold, nickel, copper… These are all present in modern electronics, and they must come from somewhere. Then there is the petroleum that goes into plastics and resins. The lithium from Bolivia and the batteries. Also the electricity and water consumed in manufacturing… All up those little I-Phones are a globally sourced device that places huge demands on our planet’s precious resources.
We ran a mission in Costa Rica recently targeting illegal gold miners who operate inside a National Park. They are an absolute environmental disaster, using cyanide to separate gold from the silt, they cause enormous erosion with their mining activities, and worst of all, they kill endangered wildlife to live on. The interesting thing though is it isn’t locals consuming the gold – It is people in western countries with their I-Phones, LED screens and computers. When we buy this stuff, we have no idea of the havoc it wreaks on distant environments.
The people sitting outside the Apple store will have no idea on how the I-Phone is made or where its components come from. Certainly most would be ignorant of the damage mining causes in remote locations globally, and that there is a connection between that and their new device.
The problem though is compounded with rapid product obsolescence. Electronics become outdated in just months. All those people sitting outside the Apple store – nearly every one would already own a smart-phone. It is just that the new one is slightly faster, brighter, or with better GPS or whatever. Companies keep updating their products with new features making the old ones unwanted. Planned obsolescence has turned electronic items into consumable items.
The real challenge we face though is how do we stop this? How do we stop people from wanting new stuff? If Apple didn’t keep updating their phones, well LG, Samsung or someone else would and they’d take the market share. Companies must keep innovating and coming up with new and improved goods to ensure they remain in business, making profits, and employing people.
In some ways this is a failing of the capitalist system. What is good for the economy is often bad for the environment – Pete Bethune