You Probably Own Stuff That’s Made By Slaves

I can’t say for sure, but more than likely, you do. We all do.

I hammer the issue of sustainability in tech design pretty hard, and one thing that surprises me is how few people can actually hear the problem when I explain it. 75% of respond with something like “I don’t care if my computer is fixable, because I’ll just buy a new one.” THAT IS THE PROBLEM. I want to grab that 75% and shake them by the shoulders until they get it. Where do the precious metals and minerals in your technology come FROM? (Mostly smuggled out of developing countries who don’t see any of the profit.) How are they sourced? (Often by slaves, who are often children.) What happens to these gadgets at the end of their usable lives? (They release toxins into the groundwater of wherever they’re disposed, which is usually a developing nation. Children light them on fire, to burn away the useless parts, releasing carcinogens and harmful chemicals into the air, breathing them into their lungs. Then they pick through the charred remains for precious metals.) Can the product be recycled, or even responsibility disposed of? (In the case of Apple’s latest Retina MacBook Pro: no.)

This is a problem. This is a huge problem. It’s about more than repairability; it’s about sustainability, and being good stewards of our planet, and about massive social injustice. So please, stop telling me how you have no problem “just going out and buying a new one,” and try to hear what I am saying. What so many people are saying. We are responsible for what is happening to these people. We need to demand change.

Here is a two-minute video that scratches the surface regarding slave labor and the mining of precious metals for our gadgets. Please watch it, and pass it along to your friends if you think it’s important that people are made aware of the crisis.

If you are not feeling anything for the people whose lives are being affected by this crisis, you need to start wondering why that is. How does this injustice not make your heart sad? How is this not an outrage?  What is the matter with you, that you’re not upset by this? I know it is totally not okay to be so politically incorrect, but I’m not so sure that political correctness is getting us anywhere. I’m not so sure that political correctness is restoring the lives of slaves.

I hate to rail on and on like such a Negative Nancy. It makes me uncomfortable. Like when I have to go next door at three-o’clock in the morning and ask them to keep it down. But isn’t it time that the party’s over? Can’t we agree that we had our fun, but it’s time to begin making better decisions?


Leave a comment


  1. Alan

     /  June 25, 2012

    Perhaps it’s because sustainability is a loosely defined term? Ie it means slightly different things to different people.

    I know it doesn’t capture the whole gist of what you’re trying to say but perhaps you should use the word recyclable instead.

    People understand that word, recycling has been bought into by most people. They perceive it as good and since most people think of themselves as good they’d want to endorse it.

    So to sum up I believe you’d get more traction if you tell people that the rMBP is LESS recyclable. That’s something they can grasp, relate to and get outraged about.

    Ps they should get outraged about sustainability as a whole ie the scarcity of metals and toxic nature of waste and the nastiness of the illegal recycling industry but… one step at a time.

  2. Erica

     /  July 6, 2012

    This is a great post! I found your blog through the Magic Mike/Fifty Shades of Gray blowup. It amazes me that people got offended, commented on, and replied for days over that issue, but there is only one other comment on this post!?! I wholeheartedly agree that individuals should strive to buy from companies that have ethical and sustainable practices. I also believe that we were granted the tools and responsibility to provide stewardship for the earth and all of its creatures….and that we are thus far failing miserably.

    Exposure to toxic substances from the production and eventual disposal of technology is a HUGE issue right now. Unfortunately, issues in undeveloped countries are rarely discussed in mainstream American news. Maybe people would care more if they realized many products they throw away wind up in landfills and have the potential to pollute our groundwater? These are also, most likely, individuals who think that all of our garbage gets incinerated. Yeah, because nothing in the garbage produces toxic fumes, right?

    There is a disconnect today between products and consumers. Products do not magically appear at Wal-Mart. They do not magically disappear on trash day. We focus on convenience without consideration of consequences, and it makes my heart hurt for subsequent generations.

  3. matt

     /  July 6, 2012

    You are a crazy liberal aren’t you? are you a tree hugger also? would you kill a bee if you had to or just let it sting you and die? where are your sources for this, and pulling it out of your ass doesn’t count?

  4. I found your blog through the 50Shades article which I will say again was amazing! I agree with you about the slave labor issue, but let me ask you this for purposes of discussions.

    If we are not buying directly from slave owners or directly profiting from slave labor, then what is wrong with the situation from our end?

    If the culture in Congo uses slave labor as a matter of course then who are we to criticize that? Who are we Americans to go to Congo and tell them how they should run their culture?

    On what grounds do you, or anyone else, stand when you say that slave labor is “wrong?” In a world of multiculturalism where there is not superior culture, but instead all cultures are equally valuable yet in different ways, how can we say that cultures with slavery are “wrong?”

    I believe slavery is wrong, but why do you believe it is wrong? Because they are humans? Humans, according to our 21st Century science, are very intelligent animals who randomly became intelligent. In that case, we use horses to work for us so why not use people to work for us?

    How is it that owning another human being and forcing them to work for us is morally wrong?

    (Again, I believe it is wrong. I’m asking you why you believe it is wrong.)

    • Just checking for understanding: you’re asking me why I think slavery is wrong? I have to admit that this is a surprising question. I’d have to say that my primary reason for being against the practice of slavery is that it usurps people’s God-given agency, which crosses all cultural barriers.

      If we are not buying directly from slave owners or directly profiting from slave labor, then what is wrong with the situation from our end?

      By buying slave-made products, we are “passively” (though I’d argue that our consumption of slave-made products is not as passive as we’d like to think) supporting stripping people of their God-given agency. Not to mention the inhumanity of it all, which, to a nonbeliever, is reason enough to be against it.

  5. Erica

     /  July 7, 2012

    To Matt, Melissa’s post is well-founded. Child labor, forced labor, and inhumane working conditions are common (see what’s going on in China, an industrialized nation, at Countries are shipping their garbage overseas (see These are real issues.

    To Dane, I think Melissa’s message is saying that consumers should be educated about where their products are coming from and choose to support companies who do not use slavery and who source sustainable materials (unless of course an individual supports slavery and/or other unethical practices…). You’re right that we cannot change the infrastructure of a country to suit our beliefs, but why shouldn’t we choose to support companies whose business model fits our beliefs? You said “If we are not buying directly from slave owners or directly profiting from slave labor, then what is wrong with the situation from our end?”. If you disagree with slavery, why would you choose to support a practice that is not aligned with your beliefs and continues those practices?

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