The Embodied Implications of Your iPhone

One Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California is the headquarters of one of the most famous companies in the world. Everyone has heard of Apple. If you don’t own an Apple product, you have probably read about the praise Apple receives for it’s innovate phones, computers, operating systems and music services. Apple products are everywhere, and it was estimated that in 2014, roughly 25% of adults in America owned an iPhone[1]. Apple recently reached a historically high valuation of $670 billion[2]. However, there is a story behind Apple that is rarely told. This project aims to tell the stories of the people who are behind our phones. I examine where iPhone materials come from, and who is actually building the iPhone.

What are iPhones made out of?

There is an incredibly large amount of elements that go into creating a smart phone. There are seven rare earth metals that are responsible for the iPhone’s screen, circuitry, speakers and vibrating capabilities[3]. China is far and away the world’s leader in rare mineral mining. Around 90% of the world’s supply of rare minerals have been mined in China[4]. Half of that supply is mined and process in Baotou, a city with a population of 2.5 million[5].


Toxic waste being pumped into a pond in Baotou (Root Force 2013).

Baotou, China 

Under the control of Mao Zedong, the state-owned Baotou Iron and Steel Company started mining for rare earth metals in 1958. Prior to 1958, “There were fields as far as the eye can see. In place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, aubergines, and tomatoes”[6].

The process of separating and purifying the rare earth metals is based on hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths, which have formed a pseudo-pond that is filled with toxic runoff[7].


Once Apple buys the materials, who manufactures iPhones?

Foxconn, Apple’s main manufacturing partner, was founded by Terry Gou in 1974. His vision was based on providing the lowest total cost for electric and mechanical part manufacturing[8]. Foxconn has around 1.2 million employees, making it the 10th biggest employer in the world[9]. It partners with many other tech giants like Microsoft, Blackberry and Sony. Foxconn has factories in many countries, but this page focuses on Foxconn City, the nickname for a 400,000 employee factory in Shenzhen.

In Foxconn City, it is estimated that 130,000 iPhones are made per day, or about 90 iPhones a minute[10].

Facts about the employees of Foxconn City[11]:

 Majority are in their teens or early twenties

 Those that are underage are labeled as interns to avoid raising red flags

 Typically stay less than a year at the factory

 Describe the work as “tedious, exhausting and high-pressure.”

 Average salary is $1-2 an hour

 Gave Foxconn City the nickname “The Suicide Express” because workers were committing suicide due to the awful conditions

Analyzing the Larger Context of Who and What makes an iPhone

The rare earth metal mines have environmental justice concerns that are very analogous to the “fracking” situation in America.

Ma Jun, the director of Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs states that, “In China, the cost of environmental violations and damage is still too low. Rare earths is such a classic case of this – we basically export the resources at a rather cheap price, and much of the environmental cost is externalized to local communities[12].

»Ÿ There are costs and benefits associated with rare earth metal mining

»Ÿ The pond lacks proper lining and allowed the toxic contents to reach the groundwater

»Ÿ Residents state that the water looks fine, but smells really bad

Ÿ» One of the biggest critiques of fracking is that it contaminates groundwater

»Ÿ Residents are bearing an unfair amount of the negative externalities

Ÿ» Environment is being sacrificed for economic gains


Primitive accumulation is the key reason for these environmental justice issues. The Baotou Iron and Steel Company began accumulating farmers’ land in the 1950s[13]. This allowed the Chinese government to have a dominant position because it had a monopoly of the ownership of the means of production of rare earth minerals[14]. The marginalized group of farmers did not have an ability to speak out against the government, for fear of being imprisoned[15]. Furthermore, the native population does not have the power or resources to force the Baotou Iron & Steel Company to internalize their externalities. As this company continues to collect profits, the wealth gap will only continue to increase, marginalizing the local community even more.

Humans as a form of energy 

Apple is enabling Foxconn to exploit human energy in return for economic gains. Before I continue to explain how human energy has been exploited, I want you to be aware of some of the facts associated with manufacturing in China vs. America.

 American manufacturing wages are much higher than China’s

 Producing an iPhone in China costs $65 less than in America[16]

 The cost and duration of human energy in China is far different than America’s, where employees work 12 hour days and earn $17[17]

 It costs $22 to make a $1,500 computer in America, but it costs $4.85 to make the same product in Taiwan[18]

There have been previous studies that examine the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) in reference to human energy. This is commonly applied to agriculture. For example, wheat farmers in Kenya have an EROEI of 1:3.31[19]. Human energy is the key to manufacturing iPhones. The price of this energy is much cheaper in China. The Chinese government is likely okay with keeping their low minimum wage because it brings China more business. It raises an important ethical question for any company that exports labor to countries because the price of human energy is cheaper there.

Why is Apple doing this and what can you do about it?

Apple needed to find a spatial fix for their wage problem. The price of a unit of human energy costs a lot more in America than in China. If iPhone prices included the $65 it costs to manufacture a phone with fair wages, Apple would most likely lose some of their market share because higher prices turn away customers.  Apple found a spatial fix in China by relocating labor there because human energy is cheaper[20]. The cheap cost of production allows Apple to sell iPhones at a much more competitive price but may be hurting Apple in the long run. When Apple exported it’s labor to China, middle class jobs in the electronic production industry decreased as a result. There will be smaller markets for Apple products because their consumers are not earning enough to buy Apple products.

Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn, “fancies himself a latter-day Henry Ford, but he has not introduced any equivalent of the pioneering $5-a-day wage, which put Model Ts in reach of those who built them. Few Foxconn workers can afford the iPads and iPhones they assemble”[21].

It is not sustainable to try and capture more of the market by decreasing wages because it will eliminate the consumer base. It is only through fair wages that Apple becomes a sustainable company. Whether it be through consumer pressure or international pressure, Apple will run out of places to initiate their spatial fixes of finding cheap human energy.

What can you do about unfair wages of human energy as labor?

The Nike Case Study

» Nike is first protested against by college students nationwide in 1997[22]

» Nike’s image was hurt and sales started to fall[23]

» Nike starts auditing all factories that manufactures Nike products[24]

» Nike creates the Fair Labor Association[25]

» Nike does not exploit human energy any more[26]

Final Remarks 

Apple has been praised for their ability to innovate in the past. Looking forward, Apple will need to use that innovation to become sustainable. It is not sustainable to continue to accumulate wealth and exploit human energy. It is not sustainable to continue to mine for rare earth metals and destroy the surrounding environment. Consumers have all the power here because they can refuse to buy Apple products that are made through the exploitation of human energy and the environment. The current consumer demand gives Apple no reason to change.

Embodied Energy is a term that is used to measure how much energy it takes to produce something[27]. I propose that there should be a new term that measures the impacts of making a product. Embodied Implications is a term that can be used in this case to measure the impacts, both positive and negative, of producing an iPhone. Consumers must learn that there are severe and real consequences of producing an iPhone. There are marginalized groups that are suffering in order for an iPhone to be made. iPhones are built in poor working conditions and for a detrimentally low wage. The metals that comprise an iPhone come at the cost of exposing residents to a contaminated water supply and damaging the environment. As the demand for iPhones increases, the embodied implications will only become larger. As consumers, we must demand better from Apple.


[1] Elmer-DeWitt, P. (2014, January 14). NPD: Better than 1 in 4 adult Americans now own an iPhone. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

[2] Yahoo Finance. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from

[3] Greene, J. (2013, July). Digging for rare earths: The mines where iPhones are born – CNET. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

[4] Kaiman, J. (2014, March 20). Rare earth mining in China: The bleak social and environmental costs. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

[5] Kaiman, J. (2014).

[6] Kaiman, J. (2014).

[7] Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

[8] Alexander, R. (2012, March 19). Which is the world’s biggest employer? Retrieved November 14, 2014, from

[9] Perlin, R. (2013). Chinese Workers Foxconned. Dissent, 60(2), 46-52. Retrieved November 14, 2014 from

[10] Perlin, R. (2013).

[11] Kaiman, J. (2014).

[12] Kaiman, J. (2014).

[13] Holmstrom, N., & Smith, R. (2000). The necessity of gangster capitalism: primitive accumulation in Russia and China. MONTHLY REVIEW-NEW YORK-,51(9), 1-15. Retrieved November 14, 2014 from

[14] Butler, K. (2012, November 1). An Australian Corporation Exporting a Toxic Legacy. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

[15] Duhigg, C., & Bradsher, K. (2012, January 21). How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

[16] Duhigg, C., & Bradsher, K. (2012).

[17] Duhigg, C., & Bradsher, K. (2012).

[18] Pimentel, D. (2009). Energy inputs in food crop production in developing and developed nations. Energies, 2(1), 1-24. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

[19] Herod, A. (1997). From a Geography of Labor to a Labor Geography: Labor’s Spatial Fix and the Geography of Capitalism. Antipode, 29(1), 1-31. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

[20] Perlin, R. (2013).

[21] Nisen, M. (2013, May 9). How Nike Solved Its Sweatshop Problem. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

[22] Nisen, M. (2013).

[23] Nisen, M. (2013).

[24] Nisen, M. (2013).

[25] Nisen, M. (2013).

[26] Nisen, M. (2013).

[27] Mirowski, P. (1991). More heat than light: economics as social physics, physics as nature’s economics. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from


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