The traditional first rule of business is to give the customers what they want. Steve Jobs thought differently. "It's not the consumers' job," he said, "to know what they want."
Some people think that's cool -- the cocky self-confidence of a visionary with uncompromising standards. But I can't help but hear it as a reminder that companies target consumers by creating desires we didn't know we had and meeting them with cheap shiny gadgets we didn't know we needed. And when the companies get caught trashing the environment or mistreating their workers, everyone blames the customers -- that's us -- for demanding cheap shiny gadgets.
I've been thinking about this since news of the suicides at the Foxconn factory in China and other revelations about the disturbing details of Apple's supply chain produced a wave of guilt among Americans who can't imagine life without their iPhones, iPads and iPods. (On Thursday, after an Apple-endorsed investigation of factory conditions by the independent Fair Labor Association, Foxconn agreed to end illegal overtime, improve safety and upgrade worker housing.)
Sometimes it seems everything we buy is tarnished by guilt. Whether it's electronics from unsafe factories, clothes from oppressive sweatshops or coffee from the rainforest, we blame ourselves and our fellow consumers for our complicity in an unjust and unsustainable system. In a course I'm taking on impacts of the global economy, a classmate said: "It's our fault. We're driving this system. If we didn't buy the stuff, the manufacturers wouldn't make it."
Consumer as king is the gospel of today's marketplace. In an oft-cited editorial The Economist declared: "Brands do not rule consumers; consumers rule brands." After I wrote my local newspaper decrying all the branded schwag hospitals hand out to new mothers, one angry woman wrote me to object: "We control the manufacturers. It is never them controlling us, and it never has been."
Really? Ask yourself:
• If Apple didn't keep rolling out new, massively-hyped models, how many owners of perfectly functional iPhones would want a new one after a few months?
• Before single-serving plastic bottles, who wanted to carry around a throwaway container of water that, despite no guarantee of being cleaner or safer, costs thousands of times more than what comes out of the tap?
• How many mothers would have thought the best way to protect their kids was with pajamas soaked in neurotoxic flame-retardant chemicals, still on the market 35 years they were first identified as a health risk?
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued that companies aren't just giving us what we want; they're also manufacturing "wants that previously did not exist." "Production," he wrote, "only fills a void that itself has created."
Maybe the $130 billion-plus spent on advertising in the United States in 2010 had something to do with it. Last year, Apple alone spent almost $1 billion on advertising to persuade us that the latest version of their devices will transform our lives. They add cool new features, sure, but they also tweak the designs just enough that the hippest users can tell at a glance if you're a loser who's still using last year's model. That's not just planned obsolescence, it's perceived obsolescence.
Another tactic is making us feel we're in charge by offering us lots of choices. Choices, after all, create profitable niche markets. In Consumed, Rutgers political theorist Benjamin Barber says we are "seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but the power is in the determination of what's on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers."
I'm not saying we are powerless to make ethical choices with our purchases or that our choices can't influence the marketplace. The problem with believing the best way to make change is by voting with our pocketbooks is that it defines us as consumers, not citizens. It implies that the most important choices are made in the supermarket aisles rather than in the halls of government and corporate towers.
Next time someone says they feel guilty for owning an iPhone, ask if they were the one who decided to maintain a 73% profit margin while underpaying workers on 18-hour-shifts. Did they decide to roll out new models at breakneck speed? To use conflict minerals and toxic chemicals? I didn't think so. The most important ethical choice is not the decision to buy an iPhone, but the decision made on how to make, market and sell it.
Let's stop thinking like consumers and think like citizens. By all means let's shun products from companies whose behavior offends. But let's also realize we can work to change not just the way they act but the way they're allowed to act. Only when every manufacturer of Stuff is required to make it safely and fairly will we know that no matter what we buy, the important choices have already been made.