A Decent Factory opens with this quote from Milton Friedman: "The one and only social responsibility of business is to make profits." It then proceeds to demonstrate how it might be possible to infuse a system of ethics into that statement, at least up to a point. A brief, revealing documentary, A Decent Factory follows a team from the Finnish cell-phone company Nokia as it investigates a German-owned, China-based factory that manufacturers cell-phone chargers. The bulk of the film takes place in the factory itself, but the most important bit of business takes place back in Finland. Without apology, the Nokia execs agree that while it's nice to adhere to high ethical standards, what's really important is the appearance of adhering to high ethical standards. Without this appearance, customers will look elsewhere. Ethical mutual funds will shun them. In short, they'll lose business. The fact that the appearance of ethical behavior can be created more easily by actual ethical behavior than by subterfuge is a nice bonus. It might also be the best hope for saving the world.
But as Hanna Kaskinen, the dogged head of the investigation, concludes with a sigh, "You can't change the world overnight." When they arrive at the factory in question, they find that workers are paid beneath the minimum wage, sleep eight to a room in factory dormitories, use bathrooms located next to open chemical containers, and work overtime as a matter of practice. But by the standards of the region, the factory isn't so bad. Kaskinen is tasked with making what improvements she can, not reinventing the system, and there's a real sense of commitment behind her seen-it-all attitude. Honest working hours and a better wage today lays the groundwork for even more improvements tomorrow, or at least that's how the logic goes.
Director Thomas Balmès mostly just tags along for the ride, but the incidental details he picks up taint the sense of guarded hopefulness. He captures two factory execs, apparently not suspecting they could be translated, debating which set of books to show Kaskinen's team, and he observes kitchen help shoveling meat and vegetables into vat-like woks, creating another cheap energy source for a component of the factory machinery. Whatever improvements market-based ethics demand, true decency remains a good ways in the distance.