By Clare Jarmy, Acting Deputy Head (Academic)
In Jaw this week, I spoke about the ethics of buying smartphones. Having recently broken my own phone, I described the dilemma I faced when I came to replacing it. I talked about an event I attended here at Bedales a few years ago, where former Head of BBC News James Harding explained that most of the cobalt found in lithium-ion batteries – the rechargeable batteries found in all smartphones – is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where men, women and children endure dangerous and unhealthy conditions to source the element for mobile devices. This essentially means that quite a lot of us carry around with us in our pockets something that is the product of child labour.
All of this had left me wondering how I can work in a school, and care for some people’s children, whilst ignoring the plight of others. That, in turn, got me thinking about an excellent book I’ve read – The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer – which argues that although we can often feel helpless to solve global issues, we actually have a moral obligation to do something, and we should really be thinking of these global problems as our problems. If we wouldn’t think twice about rescuing a child drowning in a pond immediately in front of us, why are we reluctant to do our bit to help children in danger several thousand miles away? For me, it felt disingenuous to live a life based around caring for children, whilst ignoring other children, just because they’re far away.
I also touched upon other important issues to consider, such as the sustainability of resources used to produce smartphones, and widespread concerns about the working conditions and pay of those producing them. Use of smartphones has risen exponentially over the last few years, and as they become a staple of everyday life and use continues to rise, the ethical impact of what we do with smartphones will become more significant.
I asked students to consider the ethical weight of their smart phone. What are they carrying in their pocket? What is the moral dilemma they should face when they think about replacing their smartphone? What can they do? Addressing the advantages and disadvantages of each, I presented a range of options, from keeping a particular handset for longer than the original contract or buying a reconditioned, second-hand phone, to buying a phone from an ethical brand, such as Freephone or Teracube, who work to ensure fairer supply chains, use recycled materials, and pay fair wages.
We are a long way from a perfect solution, but I hope my talk has encouraged students to start thinking about these issues and, when they next come to replace their smartphone, consider the ethical weight of the phone they choose. As for me? For Christmas, I’m going to ask for my iPhone to be repaired.