Apple’s “Nike Moment”

In their April 13-26 edition, the National Catholic Reporter published a piece that I wrote on the explosion of press about labor rights issues at the manufacturing facilities of Foxconn, the company that makes many of Apple’s most popular devices.  The article compares Apple with Nike, which has had its share of labor problems starting in the 1990s.

As a brand, [Nike] evoked the best in American culture: commitment, achievement, competitiveness, cool, and a sense of fair play. But as tales of their rights abuses spread, Nike became a cultural symbol of everything that was wrong with capitalism and globalization.

Unlike Nike, though, Apple seems to have made it out of the controversy unscathed.  But how?  The piece reflects on some of the dynamics involved in the case, as well as some of the long term implications.

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  1. Marc Sanders

     /  April 20, 2012

    Jim, how does Chik-Fil-A’s LGBT “issue” fit into this? Does Apple get a pass because no truly desirable alternatives exist in the marketplace? That is, alternatives that push an individual’s buttons for both performance and perception (iPad/iPhone as status symbol)? Chik-Fil-A would fit into that box too, wouldn’t they?

    • Marc,

      Good question–or set of questions. You really got me thinking. I think it would depend on what you were trying to “fit” together. As I read it, the kernel of your question is not about whether or not Chik-Fil-A is getting a pass, but if it is the same kind of pass as Apple. So here’s what I’m thinking.

      1) First, for the sake of discussion of the public image/PR issue at hand, let’s stipulate that in both cases, there are violations of justice involved. In the case of Apple, we see material support for a company that violates commutative justice, or justice in contracts. Foxconn has required people to accept work contracts that fail to provide sufficient benefit to the workers. Due to poverty and insufficient opportunities, workers are not entirely free to dictate the terms of their labor, so must accept contracts that free-er people (like many Americans) probably wouldn’t accept.

      In the case of Chic-Fil-A, we see material support for organizations that seek to violate social justice, or justice in participation in society. Among those to whom they have donated are organizations that seek to deny GLTG folks participation in marriage and authentic participation in society through expression of identity.

      2) Next, then, let’s consider your primary question. My sense is that both companies got the pass, but I don’t think for the same reasons.

      It seems to me that if we were to break it down to terms in the equation, there are four in play here: level of general concern, level of specific concern, level of motivation, and opportunity cost associated with change. (Performance and perception are simply sub-factors in cost.) These four work together when people consider whether or not to act in situations of injustice.

      a) In the case of Nike, you had people who were generally concerned about justice issues who became concerned about the specific instance of Nike, and for whom changing the system would not incur particular cost. The movement started with people with specific concerns about Nike. It grew by drawing in many people who were generally concerned about justice. In the face of opposition from Nike, their motivation increased. The opportunity costs associated with losing Nike products was small, and costs associated with civil disobedience were born because of the high interest for justice.

      b) It seems to me that in the case of Apple, we saw people who were generally concerned about justice trying to raise concern for the specific issue among Apple consumers. The problem was that the opportunity costs of social change were so high that it killed motivation before it really got rolling, even among people with general concern for justice and specific concerns about Apple. Attempts to raise specific concern among non-Apple customers also failed, likely because either people have a low general concern or low motivation regarding worker injustice, especially when financial stress is generally high.

      c) In the case of Chic-Fil-A, I think you have a different profile. While polls show that a majority of Americans are in favor of gay marriage, my anecdotal experience suggests that there is little general concern about gay rights issues among the American population. People don’t mind letting gay marriage happen, but they wouldn’t want to put out a lot of effort to get it done. (We’ve seen the same sort of thing with eco: people love being green when all you have to do is buy something different.) There are some folks who work very hard on the specific issue of GLBT rights, but even among the those generally interested in rights issues, it is not the most popular. At the same time, you have a good number who are interested in the specific issue, but work against, not for it. No one in America will say child labor is ok, but they will speak openly against gay rights. So it is much more complex.

      Using the variables suggested above, you have two primary profiles, I think. Among average Chic-Fil-A customers, my guess is that there is a low general interest on gay rights issues and a low interest in the specific case of Chic-Fil-A. As a result, there is low motivation, both for those for whom opportunity costs are high and low (I know, how could losing their chicken sandwiches ever be low cost!).

      The concern about Chic-Fil-A in the blogosphere over the past few years has been among a different profile: people with high general concern for rights issues, but, it seems, low specific concern for this particular case. There is, thus, low motivation to work for change, even if the cost is low.

      To put it another way, I don’t think it is because Chic-Fil-A has a stellar rep. Apple got a pass because people aren’t motivated enough live without their high value products. Chic-Fil-A got a pass because people either either aren’t concerned about the specific issue or the general issue.

      At least, that’s my theory. Know any good sociologists who could actually run this study?


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