What does your money buy?


A person kneels before you begging for mercy and you have a safe option of not pulling a gun trigger? Do you pull the trigger or not pull the trigger? Even without knowing all the circumstances, for most people that answer is to not pull the trigger because we keep people safe.

Now pretend the person is far distant, still begging for mercy but we have cut off communications. Pretend that instead of a gun, we will simply deny them money for some life essential like food, shelter or a health treatment. In this case, money is the trigger. Do you pull the trigger or not pull the trigger? Even without knowing all the circumstances, for most people that answer is to pull the trigger, because we maximize profit without asking what it takes to make the maximum profit.

We have completely removed investment decision-making from what those investments additionally cost in social costs and environmental costs. We make moral decisions with our money that we would never do in person. Our 401Ks are structured so we don’t even know what company stock we own, much less what those companies do. Pretend that you have received an extra 5% profit made you very happy. But what if you knew that the extra 5% profit came at the cost of great suffering by many people, then would you have still purchased that extra 5% profit?

It is not just investments that have extra considerations. Every time we spend money on a product or service, we are also purchasing the social costs and environmental costs required to provide that product or service. Would that perfect gift mean as much to you if every time you saw it, you knew that a person worked 14 hours under the worst conditions to make it?

“Murder by spreadsheet” is the term that single payer health advocates have been using for the health insurance decisions that cost people their lives. Even the delay of funding approval costs lives. Would that overpaid health-care CEO’s mansion look as good if you saw it as layers and layers of dead people?

I switched from a PC to a MAC because it is a better product and also because I liked the social and environmental policies of the Apple company that makes MACs. Here is an example:

“Not only is every product we sell free of BFRs and other harmful toxins, we have also qualified thousands of components to be free of elemental bromine and chlorine, putting us years ahead of anyone else in the industry. In addition, every display we make – whether it’s built into a system or available as a stand-alone – features mercury-free LED backlighting and arsenic-free glass.”


I was really shocked to find out that in the supply chain of Apple was Foxconn, a company so bad that workers were committing suicide to leave their jobs, a company so bad that the company put up nets to stop the suicides instead of fixing the causes of the suicides. In 2006, these horrible conditions came to public notice and Apple promised to change things. What really happened is that Foxconn kept doing the same conditions but clamped down on perceptions with heavy secrecy.

Foxconn, a major electronics manufacturer that assembles Apple’s iPhones and iPads, has seen yet another employee suicide: the eleventh suicide attempt in the last year, and ninth successful one. Nan Gang, a 21-year old employee of the company, died after jumping off the four-story building. But wait – this isn’t new. We’ve seen this before. The question is why is it still happening, and happening so frequently….

In addition to this, workers were pushed to work for up to 15 hours a day and punished severely for actions as simple as not standing still in the assembly line…..

This incident is even more significant in light of Apple’s recent shareholders meeting in February 2010 in which Apple proudly took a strong stand on the leadership position and progress it has made in the area of social responsibility and sustainability. At the meeting, Apple claimed to be the first to work with its suppliers on environmental issues and worker education and protection.


Now I do think that Apple meant to fix this but that Apple had no idea how difficult this change was going to be. Apple will probably have to go to a supplier outside of China to do so. It may mean having to rebuild all of the manufacturing buildings since changing how companies work in social ways is harder than physically rebuilding the company somewhere else.

My reaction to all of this is to buy American products and if possible buy where all parts of the product are American-made because American production is more socially and environmentally conscious. However, most of the time I don’t have the information that I need to make an ethical choice.  

I ask to find out what social and environmental conditions that I am purchasing with my product or service. The worst answer is “We comply with the law.” That tells me that the company is doing the minimum possible and probably like Foxcomm using deception to get away with as much as possible.

How do we change our society so we ethically actually make informed choices? Right now we only see one price in money. Too bad we don’t see the social price and the environmental price. What if the next great electronic device said, “$699, 14 hours of labor under extremely bad conditions, one acre of poisoned farmland?”