Rotten, Apple

Apple’s ethical fig leaf could come unstuck in India

Artillery Row

Multinational corporations have never really been paragons of virtue. After all, they exist to produce and sell to mass markets to make profits for their shareholders. Despite the recent growth of corporate responsibility — now itself a corporate sub-sector — the bottom line will always be the bottom line. 

Why jeopardise lifestyle brands with another despotic regime?

Yet, in our age of global communications, the brands developed by the transnationals have new vulnerabilities and sensitivities to social and environmental zeitgeists. This is because of “lifestyle brands” — which seek to embody the values, beliefs, aspirations and attitudes of their particular target audience. By building an emotional connection, they can secure consumer buy-in over an entire lifespan. This is where the advertising action is. Get the tone and message right and, regardless of industry and product, the profits will flow like a river. Get it wrong, and they will dry up fast. Once the brand is tarnished, it is questionable whether that custom is recoverable. 

Despite most of the world’s prominent lifestyle brands originating in the West, sales are now focused on emerging markets, notably in Africa, East Asia and the Far-East. With burgeoning young populations with greater disposable income, these markets are naturally seen as vital to stay viable. 

Ergo, Apple’s new focus on India as a market and manufacturing base, accompanied by recent overtures to Narendra Modi, and an announcement this week that the tech behemoth will open its first physical store in the country. CEO Tim Cook Cook has tweeted a photo of an historic handshake with the PM, declaring, “We share your vision of the positive impact technology can make on India’s future.”

With India set to overtake China soon as the world’s most populous country, the move seems like a no-brainer. Following the revelations of concentration camps in Xinjiang Province, and the human rights violations in Hong Kong, disinvestment now eclipses investment in China. India seems to be an obvious, alternative mass-market — especially for Apple, for whom the horrendous working conditions in their iPhone factories in China are well chronicled, and for whom the compliant banning of bible-apps remains a scandal. Therein lies the problem, and the lesson that Apple seems not to have learned. 

If the so-called “golden era” of trade and commerce with China turned out to be a golden error, why would corporations jeopardise their lifestyle brands with another despotic regime? This could well be a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. 

Whilst India claims democratic legitimacy, its human rights record is deplorable and deteriorating fast. Despite having a constitution which guarantees minority religious rights, the ruling Hindu nationalist authorities increasingly affirm the Hindutva orthodoxy that to be Indian is to be Hindu — and all others are “foreign gods”. In this context, with the aid of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the accompanying paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), we see a rising tide of discrimination and brutal persecution against India’s religious minorities. Attacks on Muslim communities were recently profiled in the BBC documentary series “The Modi Question”, shortly followed by raids on the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai for alleged “irregularities and discrepancies” in the BBC’s taxes. 

For the growing Christian minority in India, life has been made extremely difficult by the imposition of “anti-conversion laws” in 12 BJP-governed states. Directly contravening India’s human rights convention obligations, these spectacularly discriminatory laws effectively allow Christians to be marginalised and attacked with impunity. 

Attacks are shared amongst fellow agitators as a badge of pride

Perhaps most pertinently, the same digital technology that Mr Cook is keen to supply, is at the forefront of the everyday persecution of religious minorities.

A report by Open Doors entitled “Destructive Lies” showed how the use of digital technology increasingly plays a part in spreading disinformation, inciting and coordinating mob violence. Citing murder, rape, torture, intimidation and harassment, the report’s researchers (commissioned from the London School of Economics) noted: “It would not be too far-fetched to say that the circumstances in which we found our research subjects living was one of imminent existential threat.”

As churches are ransacked and homes burned to the ground, the attacks are shared amongst fellow agitators as a badge of pride and a sick example of “best practice”. I doubt that anyone at Apple would wish viewers to spot when such footage boasts the iPhone 14’s Wide colour capture or sensor‑shift optical image stabilisation.

As a result of the report and pressure from a range of human rights groups, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Fernand de Varennes called for an international commission of inquiry into the many reported attacks of religious minorities — which we await, along with a writ submitted by the international advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, a petition under article 32 of the Indian Constitution, citing multiple examples of violence against Christians from 2021. 

Apple would do well to note this precarious situation. India may seem an attractive business proposition today, but history attests that when dealing with repressive ideologues, things can change fast. As the economic fallout of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates, when we do business with rights-abusing states, although the short-term gains may be significant, there is always another cost to pay. This cost is liable to outweigh the benefits over time. 

All this is equally as true for governments securing trade deals as it is for private companies engaging in business. Still, it could be said that with new forms of surveillance, censorship and disinformation becoming more readily available to authoritarian regimes, the moral stakes for trendy big tech and big data companies are especially high. 

In sales, baloney abounds. Despite all the marketing blather, most people would probably acknowledge that transnational corporations are heavy on virtue-signalling, but light on ethics. However, with “lifestyle brands” increasingly reliant on image and feelings, the rapacious drive for profits by companies such as Apple will undoubtedly bring new hazards. Hazards subject to the vagaries of “events” and the whims of public opinion. 

These are hazards which leaders such as Apple’s CEO Tim Cook have a responsibility to expose to basic cost/benefit and reputational risk analyses. It seems that one of the most successful and popular global brands sees Modi’s India as an irresistible temptation. Time will tell if this gamble pays off, but the runes bode ill.

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