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This morning, guests on the NPR News program, The Takeaway, discussed whether Apple could become the first Fair Trade tech company, in light of the 10 worker suicides at the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, Foxconn. Despite being a huge PR problem for companies like Apple who tap Foxconn for labor, lives were lost and other migrant workers at the plant continue to be oppressed by sweatshop-like conditions.

But who will be the first to care? From a PR standpoint, socially responsible and "green" companies reap the benefits of positive publicity – if their intentions are genuine. Some consumer-facing companies, such as Timberland and Stonyfield Farms, have experienced increased profit margins and strong customer loyalty as a result of consistently responsible words AND behaviors in the marketplace.  Shareholders in these companies have seen the returns and have a vested interest in supporting the corporate ethos, as well.

But how can tech companies make a similar leap? ZDNet’s Tom Foremski also posed a question about who would become the first fair trade tech company, but as one commenter on his post pointed out, there was no indication of how this could actually happen.

Going fair trade will first require a commitment by the company’s leadership to do so, perhaps at the sacrifice of profits. Cheap labor often comes at the expense of fair working conditions. Shareholders will be the major hurdles in this process – they need to realize the potential long-term gain that comes from going Fair Trade, even if the profits suffer for the first year or two. Complete transparency and a strong business plan at this early stage are critical.

If tech companies can make it past the shareholders, are consistent with their commitment, and publicize it properly, an entirely new market of buyers will open up to them. We’ve seen it happen in the consumer products market, and we need to see it happen in the tech industry.

Practically speaking, to be certified Fair Trade, a company has to go through a rigorous examination of their pricing structure, labor conditions, trade practices, corporate transparency policies, community development practices and environmental sustainability. Many companies believe that "going green" is enough, but it takes more than just recycling to create a strong socially responsible corporate brand.

Which tech company do you think will have the courage to lay it on the line and go Fair Trade first?

[Reposted from the LEWIS 360 Blog]