Prolific Consumption of Tech Goods Harms People and the Environment



In this article I examine the harmful conditions present in the production and disposal of consumer tech goods destined for, and used by, United States citizens (who are predominately Christians). The analysis relies on Delores Williams' womanist theology, as Williams requires that theology take seriously the oppression of others and calls theologians, and the church at large, to be people who act against such oppression. Practical steps for action are suggested at the end of the paper.


[1] Delores S. Williams, a preeminent womanist theologian, roots her theology in the belief that God assists oppressed people by offering ways to bring liberation, survival, and quality of life to all people in the world that are made to suffer at the hands of those who have, and wish to maintain, power.1 As a womanist, this begins within her own Black community and extends outward, for "womanist theology opposes all oppression based on race, sex, class, sexual preferences, physical disability and caste."2

Prolific Consumption of Tech Goods Harms People and the Environment by Jeff Fitzkappes

[2] Additionally, Williams believes that "all of our talk about God must translate into action that can help our people live. Womanist theology is significant only if it contributes to this struggle."3 Theology and ethics are inseparable. Evil is to be exposed and it is to be rooted out. "We [Christians] are committed to never quitting the struggle for human decency, freedom, and for a productive quality of life. And our struggle must especially benefit those against whom the social, political and economic structures have constantly sinned."4 The Christian life must be an active life, committed to loving and serving others.

[3] Jesus Christ identified personally with the poor and declared in no uncertain terms that to follow the Lord is to love and serve the poor, the oppressed. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah, saying "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor5." Jesus told his disciples that if they are to follow him they must serve others even to the point of dying for another.6 Jesus modeled his scandalous love by identifying so profoundly with the outcasts of society that he was labeled "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners."7 Further, Jesus stated that at the end of time, when people are divided into the righteous and unrighteous, the sheep and the goats, the blessed and the accursed, that the division will be on account of service to, or lack of service to, "the least" in society.8 For us to follow Jesus, we must personally identify with the suffering poor of the world, for they are our neighbors, and serve them. This paper will highlight two groups of people who are oppressed because of our prolific consumption of tech goods: foreign manufacturers and e-waste "recyclers." It is my hope that our knowledge of the ways we oppress these neighbors will call us to question our lifestyles and find ways to serve these people.

[4] This summer, Microsoft released a new set of cell phones called Kin One and Kin Two. The phones are essentially like other current "smart phones," with large bright touchscreens, cameras, internet access and various software applications, but the marketing campaign for these two phones suggests much more. In one video presentation, a Microsoft representative stated that "Kin helps you navigate your social life, it brings together everything and everyone you love."9 Their television ads show young people relaxing and having fun while using their Kin phones to making and sharing memories within a context of complete freedom and revelry.10 The good life is connected to being in contact with Microsoft's products.

[5] Contrast this to life for the young workers at Microsoft's KYE factory in Dongguan City, China, and a much different picture emerges for what it might be like for young people to be in contact with Microsoft's products.11 These youth and young adults, from 14 years old (as recently as 2008) up to the early-to-mid twenties, work from 7:45am to 10:00pm six to seven days per week. Working over 12 hours per day, for only $0.65 per hour (which is adjusted down to $0.52 per hour if one includes the in-factory meals), one "Teenaged Microsoft Worker" states that "we are like prisoners ... we do not have a life, only work."12

[6] It is not uncommon for workers who "make mistakes" to be required to "clean the bathrooms."13 If you are found to have a cell phone or mp3 player with you during work your supervisor may confiscate and smash it.14 Not following the foreman's orders results in the deduction of 11 hours pay, missing a day at work costs an employee 5.5 day's wages and "when workers flee the factory, they lose the 15 days wages" as the company has a practice of paying workers 15 days late to ensure easy withdraw of fines incurred by employee misconduct.15 Workers are even fined when they sustain an injury.16

[7] If you are a girl, or a young woman, working at the plant life is even worse. "Security guards sexually harass the young women," and "there is nothing the young women can do but to bear it in silence as there is no avenue in the factory for addressing such abuse."17 That is a very dangerous situation! These workers are young and do not know that they may have legal rights. One observer noted that, "workers are desperate for money, so they can’t take risks."18 Further, the same observer said that, "Workers know that the factory isn’t treating them fairly, and that management does not see them as human beings, let alone respect them. Yet, the overwhelming number of workers believe there is no way out."19

[8] After a grueling, degrading long day at work, employees crowd into hot overcrowded bunkhouses and bathrooms, working quickly to wash their clothes and sponge themselves off (as there are no proper showers or bathing facilities) before the lights automatically turn off at 11 p.m.20 What is life like for these young people, who like us dream of freedom and good times spent with friends and family? According to this report by the National Labor Committee, "To be a worker at KYE means you must learn to eke out a primitive existence, working enormous hours while earning below-subsistence level wages, and having no access to the most fundamental human or labor rights protections."21

[9] Return to the opening depiction of life as it is presented by Microsoft's marketing department for those who have access to the new Kin phones. Now compare those carefree images to life at the assembly lines which produce Microsoft's products. This disparity is not unusual in the tech industry. Does our desire for inexpensive cell phones and computers justify such oppressive working conditions for others, our global neighbors?

[10] The manufacturing process is not the only time that these items will cause harm to people. To truly understand the impact our consumption of tech goods have on people, we must consider what these objects are made out of and where they go when we dispose of them.

[11] The dangerous chemicals housed within our electronic gadgets have been reported on more in recent years and many consumers, while not about to curb their appetite for such items, do seek a way to dispose of them ethically. To facilitate this, it is common for recycling companies around the United States to organize drop-off points at local malls and other shopping centers in order to conveniently receive our e-waste. After everything has been collected, the trucks return to the recycling facilities and we are told that our e-waste is safely broken down into re-usable basic components. We get the satisfaction of knowing that instead of putting these dangerous chemical into our local landfills we are being "green," providing jobs, and allowing component parts to be used in future products.

[12] In theory this can all work exactly as portrayed. The technologies and facilities do exist to make this process work, and in some places, it does.22 Unfortunately, reality is not always that neat and tidy. "Informed recycling industry sources estimate that between 50 to 80 percent of the wastes collected for recycling are not recycled domestically at all, but very quickly placed on container ships bound for destinations like China"23 (and other non-European nations). How much waste is this? If we consider just one product, computers, it is estimated that between 1997 and 2007 the United States found itself with roughly 500 million waste computers that needed to be discarded from homes and businesses. In 500 million waste computers one can estimate to find 1.58 billion pounds of lead, 3 million pounds of cadmium, 1.9 million pounds of chromium, and 632,000 pounds of mercury,24 not to mention all of the plastics, metals, silicon and flame retardants (such as polybrominated biphenyls [PBB] and polybrominated diphenylethers [PBDEs] ).25

[13] What effects do these chemicals have on humans and the environment? Here is a sampling of an answer, quoted from a recent Basel Action Network report:26

The negative effects of lead are well established and recognized. It was first banned from gasoline in the 1970s. Lead causes damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and reproductive system in humans. Effects on the endocrine system have been observed and its serious negative effects on children’s brain development are well documented. Lead accumulates in the environment and has high acute and chronic effects on plants, animals and micro-organisms.

Cadmium compounds are toxic with a possible risk of irreversible effects on human health, and accumulate in the human body, particularly the kidneys.

Mercury can cause damage to various organs including the brain and kidneys, as well as the fetus. Most importantly, the developing fetus is highly susceptible through maternal exposure to mercury. When inorganic mercury spreads out in the water, it is transformed to methylated mercury in the bottom sediments. Methylated mercury easily accumulates in living organisms and concentrates through the food chain, particularly via fish.

Hexavalent Chromium/Chromium VI
Chromium VI is still used as corrosion protection of untreated and galvanized steel plates and as a decorative or hardener for steel housings. It easily passes through cell membranes and is then absorbed — producing various toxic effects in contaminated cells. Chromium VI can cause damage to DNA and is extremely toxic in the environment.

It is illegal to dump these chemicals in United States landfills because it is well known how dangerous they are. And while it is illegal for many countries to import e-waste from other countries, it is not illegal for the United States to export such waste (other than Mercury27). The United States is the largest producer, and exporter, of e-waste in the world, and it is the only developed nation not to ratify the Basel Convention (an international treaty created in 1989 making it illegal to import or export e-waste).28 "In fact, U.S. officials have actively worked to defeat, and then to weaken, the Basel waste export ban."29 Why does the United States allow this? Taking advantage of poor non-white foreigner laborers, and the environment, increases the profit margins for U.S. tech recyclers and other sectors of the U.S. tech industry (while also making tech products cheaper for U.S. consumers).

[14] Now, if all of the e-waste, with its toxic chemicals, where being exported to state of the art containment facilities, this would be understandable. That is sadly not what is happening here. Instead, this dangerous waste is being dumped into neighborhoods, yards, city streets, rivers and across open land. Poorly paid laborers are then charged with the task of tearing apart, burning and otherwise chemically-extracting raw components for later reuse. The Basel Action Network report entitled Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia reports that

The open burning, acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air and water and exposes the men, women and children of Asia’s poorer peoples to poison. The health and economic costs of this trade are vast and, due to export, are not born by the western consumers nor the waste brokers who benefit from the trade30 [emphasis mine].

When you watch videos, or see pictures, of the e-waste dumped in China, and other places, it is heartbreaking. Entire towns are filled with our toxic waste. Very small children can be seen not only playing on dangerous piles of broken glass, twisted metal, and poisonous chemicals, but you can also seeing them working alongside their impoverished parents as they eke out a meager living. The waste is not contained in recycling facilities, such as nearby warehouses or factories, but is instead inside homes, next to homes, and piled everywhere in and around these communities. These citizens live, work, sleep, eat, play and raise families on piles of our toxic waste, and because of this, we get to buy cheaper cell phones, televisions and computers.

[15] Delores Williams refers to any "assault upon the environment and [/or] upon black women's bodies" as "the sin of defilement."31 Western humanity, largely comprised of Western Christians, is wreaking havoc upon the world on a scale that has no equivalent in human history. As Williams and other have sought to convey, racism, coupled with capitalism, unleashes incredible harm on the most vulnerable people of the world. It also devastates the natural environment and its non-human constituency (animals, plants, insects, bacteria). Williams rightly points out that this is a sin, for not only are we doing unspeakable damage to a fragile ecosystem that we ourselves depend upon for survival, we are directly harming other people whom God loves. This is a serious affront. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, walked this earth, breathed its air, climbed its mountains, ate its food, was immersed in its water, and was attentive to its sparrows, lilies and peoples. Are we, the "Western Christians ... whom are the manipulators of technology and concepts of development" that have attacked "creation itself," prepared to face those people, and the world, that we are defiling by our constant consumption of tech goods? If we are to stop being the oppressors, what must we do?

[16] First, we must reject the marketing schemes that demand that we continuously purchase new and "better" products (electronic and otherwise). Most computers built within the last 10 years can still surf the web and be used for listening to music, watching movies, writing papers and emailing with ease. Free Open-Source operating systems (such as Ubuntu Linux32) and their constitutive free software will bring older computers back to life at no cost and with little fear of viruses or malware. Reject planned and perceived obsolescence.

[17] Second, begin demanding that foreign laborers receive proper wages, health care, safety and working conditions, as we would demand for our families and neighbors here at home. Boycott businesses that continue to oppress others. Tell your state and federal representatives to call for the US ratification of the Basel Convention. Ask your newspapers and TV reporters to cover these stories. The people suffering and dying to create, and dispose of, our glowing beeping doodads are loved by God, deserving of the same decent treatment we hope for ourselves and our loves ones.

[18] Third, challenge your church to act on behalf of "the least of these" in the tech industry. Perhaps church members could find creative ways to share consumer technologies so fewer items need to be purchased and "recycled." Post the names, and locations, of Basel Convention adhering e-recycling facilities33 within the church building and the neighboring community.

[19] Lastly, pray to God for forgiveness. We are all members of this consumer culture and we need to admit that we are a part of a system of oppression. Our purchasing habits can cause harm to other people, their families, and the environment. This is not acceptable for anyone who seeks to love and serve others in a manner modeled after Christ. Pray that God's grace will free us from such habits so that our concern for others can grow to outweigh our desire for newer products.

Jeffrey Fitzkappes
is a candidate for a Ph.D. in Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Works Cited


1. Williams, "Straight Talk, Plain Talk: Womanist Words about Salvation in a Social Context," 119.

2. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, xiv.

3. Ibid., 203.

4. Williams, "The Boundaries That Betray Us," 27.

5. Luke 4:18–19 (NRSV).

6. Matthew 20:25–28.

7. Luke 7:34.

8. Matthew 25:31–46.

11. Kernaghan, "China's Youth Meet Microsoft: KYE Factory in China Produces for Microsoft and other US Companies." For photos, and more information, please visit

12. Ibid., 3.

13. Ibid., 3.

14. Ibid., 10.

15. Ibid., 11, 18.

16. Ibid., 12.

17. Ibid., 3, 11.

18. Ibid., 18.

19. Ibid., 19.

20. Ibid., 3, 13, 16.

21. Ibid., 22–23.

22. Responsible recycling programs are listed here:

23. Puckett, Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia, 2.

24. Ibid., 5–6.

25. United Nations Environment Programme, Environmental Alert Bulletin: E-Waste, the Hidden Side of IT Equipment Manufacturing and Use, 1.

26. Puckett, Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia, 9–10.

27. Environmental News Service, President Bush Signs Obama's Mercury Export Ban into Law.

29. Puckett, Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia, 3.

30. Ibid., 1.

31. Williams, "Sin, Nature, and Black Women's Bodies," 25, 29.

33. Responsible recycling programs are listed here:



© September 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 9