Morality, Favors, and Contracts

I believe in practicing "thought experiments", like Einstein did with physics, about ethics and morality.   It's something we did in a meaningful freshman philosophy seminar at Carleton College (where I intended to be a philo major... but that's another story).

This week I had a frustrating conversation with a teenager in our family.   He asked me for a favor dropping him off somewhere by car.  It reminded me I needed someone to go to our Fair Trade Recycling Intern Adelaide's apartment to bring my bicycle back home, and I proposed an exchange - I drop him off at practice, and he brings my bike back from her apartment.

Parents of teenagers know the slippery slope of negotiations.  Below is a lesson in how to negotiate, which can be applied to contracts, etc.

  1. Even though no one knows I do it, even though it's not appreciated, I silently do this favor.  It is not even "for God" (though that's a legitimate inspiration).  I'm just wired to do this favor for someone who will owe me nothing, not even realize I did it.  My left hand knoweth not what the right hand giveth.
  2. Even though you appear to have nothing, and are unlikely to ever be in a position to help me back, I do this favor, and you say "thank you".  The lion releases the mouse.
  3. I do this favor knowing that you have some power, position, possibility of one day returning this favor to me.   It would be foolish of me to refuse.
  4. I do this favor and ask for another favor in return.
  5. I do this favor conditionally, that you do a specific favor for me in return.  If you don't, I won't.
  6. I accept your favor, but I decline doing a favor for you.
  7. I take, steal, or force the favor from you.

Religion, morality, ethics, and contract law.  These social exchanges, between billions of people, occur every second.  Some of us profit from it.  We are more likely to profit the farther down the scale we go.  Society is rigged to put the brakes on that, and to look upon us "favorably" the higher on the scale we behave.

How does a Recycler compete in ethical terms?   What happens if you behave ethically, but the person you are exchanging favors with is accused of being a bad actor?  A primitive, unsavory, wire burning informal heathen?   Does your best favor become a negative?

There is a second layer of morality, a derivative, where the intention or outcome of the second person's favor, that which we help them to do, also defines us.   If you offer to help me do something evil - steal money - and I kill someone in return... that is bad on bad.  If you help them do evil without being forced or obliged, you are judged more complicit.

Fair Trade Recycling is, for me, an intent to exchange, trade, and do favors for people around the world.  I work with the "geeks of color" directly, we export with them directly and invest with them, or steward their investments.    Most of our clients are relying on our company to do the ethical and environmentally sustainable thing, and to export what people want (not what they don't want), but also to care about why they want it and what they will do with it.

The anti-export crusaders have a powerful argument that poverty, the difference between wealthy and poor people, make these negotiations unfair.   A poor person is more likely, they say, to promise something they do not have the means to do (ensure environmentally responsible management of the residue).  Why take the risk?  And they elevate the risk by marketing aggressively against black and brown recyclers.  Why take the risk that my clients will see me exporting to Africans, Latin Americans, and Chinese?

What we are trying to do is to identify the real risks, and the real difficulties, in proper management of end-of-life equipment.  The span of time includes more and more people in the exchange.   It is moral for an electronics equipment manufacturer to put a flame retardant into plastic and wood to reduce the risk to homes and fire fighters.   When the equipment is reused, it's still safer because of the flame retardant, and still provides an affordable device for someone who cannot afford new.  But when that flame retardant is burned in a fire - either at an African dump or at a USA plastic recycling factory (a topic for a future blog), and that flame retardant is released into the environment, it becomes a bad thing.

A simple label:  R2, E-Steward:   The demand today is for a simple label that says "we recycle ethically and sustainably".  Our clients have already chosen to discard a device because they don't have the bandwidth to sell, repair, or donate it.  "They rely on us", in 5 words or less.   We have to accept the "cognitive dissonance" of our clients and suppliers.  And we have a "corporate conscience", an obligation to our employees, investors, banks, and tax collectors to make a margin (a profit) on the exchange.

Some people who provide us their used electronics just care about price... they want us to do it "cheap".  That may not make them immoral - they may donate all of the money they save on recycling to a hospital or church (some non-profits are the hardest nosed hagglers).  If they use the money they save on recycling for some profound good act, they may be ahead of the ethical recycler.  But we want the economy of scale to swing towards ethical recycling, the more people who demand an ethical practice, the more affordable that practice becomes.

If my intention is to do something good, and I accept your intention is bad, it may be possible to do some calculus in my head which justifies the "bad" you do as "yours", and retains the "good intention" I do as "mine".

So, if I am seen in the community as a "good" environmental, green, recycling company owner, and I provide good services to my clients, how does my export of products to another party impact my ethical practices?

I'm reminded again of a friend who works at the EPA, who didn't tell Jim Puckett she knew me, but just asked him who I was and what he thought about my company.  She says he whispered "He's an exporter."   As if that said everything.  And this was during a time Jim and I were working closely together, I was helping Sarah to do the CRT Glass Test that year, and they were relying on my expertise to vet their "Pledge Signers".

I didn't really think that was a moral or ethical thing, but in Jim's calculus, he was probably just stock full of moral currency which he could spend any way he wished.  And I continued to do him favors - a la #3, because of his position and influence in the recycling community.

The fact is that our clients trust Good Point Recycling to trade fairly with export clients.  But the fact is that the buyer may have other duress - children needing food, parents needing care, extortionists needing payment... which color their negotiations with me in the USA.  Is it possible that they'll be influenced to do something (accept worthless junk) which they wouldn't if I didn't hold so many cards?

The answer of course is "yes".   It's not a completely equal negotiation.   My negotiation with my teenager is also not equal.   But the moral practice I undertake is to do the importer favors.

I like to give them better than they expect.

I like to give them better terms than others offer them.

If they are currently buying from someone suspected of selling bad quality, or mixing "toxics along for the ride", I want to compete against that other supplier and send them better material, more cheaply.  I want to be the best exporter in the game, the most ethical and moral trader.

Boycotting the trade does the opposite.  It condemns the buyer to trade with a lower common denominator.

In some ways, I do see the emerging markets as people who have potential to do me a favor back someday.  I do not see them as impossibly impoverished incapables.

Fair Trade Recycling is not a #1 above, to me.  It's really a 3, 4, or 5.  Our companies do benefit, and profit, from the exchange.   But I visit the partners overseas to understand what it is they are doing.

Basically they have been accused of buying product from me, and paying to transport it, for mainly immoral and polluting reasons.  And basically, that's a lie.  Calling me "an exporter" to a Region I EPA official was the truth.  It's what they say about exporting which is the lie.   I've been called a "nigger lover" by some people whose friendship I don't need or want, and I get the same feeling when I'm called "an exporter".

We celebrate the people who stand up against injustice and false witnesses.   And I admit, I feel a certain moral superiority to the "E-Stewards" who boycott or tell Americans (and reporters) that the Basel Convention, a legal document accessible in English, online, says "no intact unit".

The largest E-Steward companies in New England repeat Puckett's accusation of my company to clients we compete for.   One regularly tells municipal officials across the region that exporting "intact units" is illegal, and that's why they charge more than my company, and that my company is breaking the law by selling their units overseas.   The Basel Convention does NOT say "no intact unit".  That is something that California SB20, in a fit of planned-obsolescence-inspired stupidity, did with its "cancellation" clause in the SB20 regulatory language (not the legislation).  When I told Jim Puckett that these large Steward donors were saying that, he washed his hands.  He said I was right, that the Basel Convention didn't say "no intact unit", and that working and repairable items were allowed (though he wants to amend the convention on the latter).  But he took no action to inform the Steward, and he markets the Steward to my clients, and he's paid a percentage of the Steward's income in the bargain.

I don't know what discussions happened between Jim Puckett and John Shegarian in the "California Compromise" we attempted to broker 3 years ago this month.   But I knew then that ERI had dealt with Gordon of Advanced Tech, who came to meet me again in Middlebury this week.  And I knew that when BAN accused Gordon's business in Semarang, Indonesia, (through NRDC) of being a "primitive, wire burning" operation in the Boston Globe, that they didn't know what they were talking about and were making it up as they went along, with a callous disregard for the lives of the geeks in Indonesia whose livelihoods they demolished.  I had never, at that time, traded with Gordon's company nor shipped to Semarang, and the easy thing would have been to tell my clients "we never shipped there".   But that was not the moral thing.  Although Gordon has always been a competitor, selling working units to the same buyers I do, I have always respected him and want to compete by selling better product less expensively into the same markets - Muslim democracies, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, are our biggest clients.

Those professional SKD factories are not around as much in the USA.  They have stopped trying to buy from USA (product is abundant locally in Southeast Asia, and the resale market was hit hard by plummeting Chinese LCD prices).  Using those company purchase orders - which were up to 50,000 units per WEEK when was founded in 2007 - no longer supports WR3A membership.

Fair Trade Recycling is now more of a set of principles than it is a coop.  The Co-Op model died with the California Compromise.

The California Compromise was based on exchange of favors, like the one leading into this blog.  It was in the end a lot like a negotiation with a teenager.  If I'd stop saying nice things about the people the teenager was attacking, the teenager thought their partnership would make me money.  No.  I was giving away money, giving away a market which I relied on, giving it to California.  And we were doing it at a time when East Coast WR3A members were in a panic over CRT prices.

Just reflecting today.   I wonder what kinds of analogies and thought experiments the Stewards are having?  If they'd try saying something new, something fresh, I'd love to read it.  Whenever I go to the website, I see the same 12 year old photo of a child on scrap in Guiyu, or an African kid burning some monitor (which we know was probably NOT just imported, but generated from a city in Africa).  It's all optics, and the optics support companies which made their money on a California SB20 system which was ill informed.

California designed a system which made shredding king, and which punished reuse.   And that is the opposite of the talent in Mexico.

This is a pretty long thought experiment.  They always seem to wind up here:

Do not do unto others what you would not want others do unto you.

Jul 28, 2010
WR3A would like to announce the "California Compromise" at the E-Scrap Conference, which means crafting the compromise ASAP. This is a call to allow for reuse at manufacturer takeback and SKD factories whose national governments ...
Sep 21, 2010
Whether you are conservative (mostly against) used computer exports, or liberal (free trade, mostly for) computer exports, you will want to see the vote at E-Scrap 2010 - whether to support or not the "California Compromise". California SB20 ...
Oct 05, 2010
CA SB20 "E-Waste" Compromise: e-Winners and e-Losers. My apologies for the long tease. We want to get this right. This afternoon we received comments back from Basel Action Network on the way the SB20 Reform process should go, from ...

Dec 05, 2010
Ok, I blew the California Compromise. Here is the dialogue I was middleman to. What should I say? In fairness, Jim Puckett of BAN was the most engaged of anyone in the discussions, and put the most time into making it work.

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