In Apple's just-issued Environmental Responsibility Report, the company makes a bold promise to eventually create "a closed-loop supply chain, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material."
While the company positioned this goal as a way to help save the environment, the announcement may also be related to the recurring accusations that Apple (like its competitors) keeps supply chain costs down through the hidden use of child labor.
For example, according to Amnesty International, children as young as seven are being worked in 24 hour shifts in cobalt mines located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt, a key component in lithium-ion batteries, is highly toxic; the child laborers in the DRC weren't even issued safety masks.
Similarly, the BBC recently revealed that the tin that goes into iPhones sometimes comes from Indonesian mud pits that frequently cave in, killing the young workers. Apple is not the only vendor that stands thus accused. Cobalt from the DRC allegedly ends up in products manufactured by Samsung, Sony and Microsoft.
Consumer electronics manufacturers claim that they conduct regular audits to remove child labor from their supply chains. As noted in the Washington Post:
"Apple said it continues to work with local groups in Congo to improve conditions for workers and stop child labor."
However, due to the complexity of international supply chains, and the corruption endemic inside countries where raw materials are sourced and child labor takes place, it's impossible to pinpoint the source of many raw materials. As a result, there's no way to guarantee that child labor isn't contributing to the manufacture (and reduced cost) of consumer electronics.
With its recent announcement, Apple appears to be throwing its collective hands in the air, perhaps hoping that 100% recycling will remove the company from the Damoclean sword of another public relations disaster.
There is only one problem with Apple's plan. The technology to do 100% recycling on complex electronic products does not yet exist nor is there a timetable for when such technology might exist.
Ironically, there is already a solution in place to stop child labor in the supply chains for consumer electronics, the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 which states:
"[a]ll goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions shall not be entitled to entry at any of the ports of the United States, and the importation thereof is hereby prohibited."
Since children, by definition, aren't old enough to make career decisions, child labor is slavery, even if the parents of those children are aware of and approve of such labor. In effect, the parents are acting as slave brokers.
Would it be bad for Apple, Samsung, Sony and Microsoft? Not really. A complete ban would force these companies to either take direct control of, and responsibility for, their supply chains or alternatively crash-develop recycling technology.
This would mean higher prices for consumer electronics, which probably cause consumers to keep their current devices longer before replacement. Unfortunately, it's apparently more important to U.S. consumers to have the latest iPhone than to eliminate the horrors of child slavery.