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Death By Design


Consumers love – and live on – their smartphones, tablets and laptops. A cascade of new devices pours endlessly into the market, promising even better communication, non-stop entertainment and instant information. The numbers are staggering. By 2020, four billion people will have a personal computer. Five billion will own a mobile phone.

But this revolution has a dark side that the electronics industry doesn’t want you to see.

In an investigation that spans the globe, award-winning filmmaker Sue Williams investigates the underbelly of the international electronics industry and reveals how even the tiniest devices have deadly environmental and health costs. From the intensely secretive factories in China, to a ravaged New York community and the high tech corridors of Silicon Valley, the film tells a story of environmental degradation, of health tragedies, and the fast approaching tipping point between consumerism and sustainability.


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The Filmmakers

Sue Williams Director/Producer/Writer

Sue Williams has produced and directed five critically acclaimed, feature documentaries about China for national PBS broadcast, including Frontline. Contemporary China features prominently in her most recent film, DEATH BY DESIGN. Sue also directed two highly praised biographies on Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Pickford for the PBS series, American Experience.

Her films have been broadcast in more than 25 countries and appeared in festivals around the world. They have won numerous awards, most recently, the 2016 Boston Globe Doc Filmmaker Award.



December 31, 1969

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Festivals & Awards

Sheffield Doc/Fest


"Just what is the cost of our digital dependency? Director Sue Williams debunks the notion that electronics is a “clean” industry by investigating a number of environmental and health catastrophes wrought by production of our gadgets. From early poisonous practices in Silicon Valley, to China’s ongoing dumping of chemicals this is a story that isn’t being told - but can no longer be ignored."

Carol Nahra

+ Festival Website


You won’t look at your iPhone in quite the same way again after viewing Sue Williams’ thoughtful documentary.”

-Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times

Vital. Provocative in its focus on giant American corporations.”

-John DeFore, The Hollywood Reporter

Both jaw-dropping and heartbreaking, Death by Design forces the viewer to reconsider their whole approach to technology”

-Hannah Clugston, Aesthetica Magazine



Many of the young Chinese men and women who make our electronics work seven days a week, 12 hours a day with almost no breaks and strict oversight of every move they make. They live under enormous pressure to reach unattainable daily quotas.

Foxconn is the world’s largest electronic supplier. In recent years, the pressure in the plant has been so great that 26 workers have jumped off the roof. 18 have died. In response, Foxconn has installed safety nets around its dormitories to catch suicidal workers.
Making our devices involves hundreds of toxic chemicals.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, when electronics were made in the U.S., they poisoned not just workers but local communities. From one plant after another, thousands of gallons of cancer-causing chemicals leaked into the groundwater, poisoning neighborhoods across Silicon Valley and small towns like Endicott, NY. The public only found out when children started being born with serious birth defects and cancer clusters sprang up in one street after another. More than a generation later, these same carcinogens are still traveling through the soil and up into people’s homes and offices.
Now that China makes most of the world’s electronics, the same devastating environmental contamination is happening there as well — and on a much larger scale.
More than 50 million tons of e-waste will be generated this year.

The vast majority of it will not be recycled responsibly. Besides some Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on waste disposal, there is no federal law which bans the export of toxic electronic waste. This makes the U.S. the only developed nation that allows their nation’s e-waste to be shipped abroad.
Responsible recyclers can choose to sign up for the only U.S. program, the eStewards Certification. It sets up globally responsible standards and bans the shipping of hazardous waste to developing countries.
Millions of the devices made in China return there as electronics waste.

Outreach Resources

International Campaign for Responsible Technology

We are an international solidarity network that promotes corporate and government accountability in the global electronics industry. We are united by our concern for the life-cycle impacts of this industry on health, the environment, and workers' rights. By sharing resources, we seek to build the capacity of grassroots organizations, local communities, workers and consumers, to achieve social, environmental, and economic justice.



AIA and our members are global leaders in advancing visionary, win-win solutions to waste and pollution that protect the environment and human wellbeing and build strong, participatory local economies.

At GAIA, we see waste and its resulting pollution as a symptom of a larger, profit-driven extractive economy, and we promote zero waste as a holistic solution and an economic shift toward justice and sustainability.

GAIA members strategize together about key goals and targets, share information online and in regional meetings, campaign toward common goals, lead trainings and skillshares, and provide a community of support for one another. We make a lasting impact by promoting on-the-ground solutions in communities and cities and shifting political and financial drivers to support these best practices. Our work covers a spectrum of approaches from supporting local struggles against pollution-causing waste facilities to influencing global and national climate policy and challenging corporate greenwashing.

Our network’s track record of success demonstrates the power of grassroots solutions to protect our planet and advance the rights and wellbeing of all communities, especially those who are most vulnerable to the impact of pollution and exploitation. Communities around the world are rejecting waste burning and are instead advancing recycling, composting, waste reduction, and other creative solutions. Recyclers and waste pickers have formed cooperatives and collectives that promote social justice while reducing waste and pollution. Cities are stopping the flow of plastic into our oceans by implementing strong systems of collection and by advocating for bans on single-use, disposable plastics like plastic shopping bags. Globally, GAIA members have worked to pass powerful, leading-edge national policies in a number of countries to reduce waste, stop waste burning, and promote recycling and composting. We have worked together in UN processes to transform global understanding of the environmental and economic importance of the waste and recycling sector and to shift the flow of public money toward zero waste pathways, especially as climate solutions.


Electronics Watch

In 2015 Electronics Watch was formally launched as an independent monitoring organisation, bringing together public sector buyers and civil society organisations in electronics production regions, with experts in human rights and global supply chains.

Electronics Watch is continuously expanding the scope of monitoring to more regions and more suppliers as increasing numbers of public sector organisations choose to share the cost of monitoring and coordinate their engagement with industry through Electronics Watch.


LES Ecology Center

The LES Ecology Center (Ecology Center) has pioneered community-based models in urban sustainability since 1987. We provide unique e-waste and composting services, environmental stewardship opportunities, and educational programming to all New Yorkers who want to learn about environmental issues and take responsibility for creating solutions through action.


China Labor Watch

CLW increases transparency of supply chains and factory labor conditions, advocates for workers’ rights, and supports the Chinese labor movement.

Founded in 2000, China Labor Watch (CLW) is an independent not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Over the past 17 years, CLW has collaborated with unions, labor organizations, and the media to conduct in-depth assessments of factories in China that produce toys, bikes, shoes, furniture, clothing, and electronics for some of the largest multinational brand companies. CLW’s New York office creates reports from these investigations, educates the international community on supply chain labor issues, and pressures corporations to improve conditions for workers.

CLW’s China office in Shenzhen interacts closely with factory workers, providing a free hotline service that offers advice and counseling to workers facing perceived violations in the workplace. This office also further supports the labor movement in China by organizing labor rights, collective bargaining, and capacity-building training programs for workers and labor rights advocates.



The GoodElectronics network has a vision of a global electronics industry characterised by adherence to the highest international human rights and sustainability standards. Labour rights and environmental norms are protected and respected throughout the entire production cycle, from the mining of minerals used in electronics products, to the manufacturing phase, and the recycling and disposal of electronics waste, both on the level of companies’ own operations and in the value chain.

Governments and public authorities perform their role as legislator, monitor whether the industry respects human rights and sustainability standards, and enforce legal provisions. Public bodies in their capacity of institutional consumers engage in socially responsible procurement.

Brand companies, suppliers, subcontractors and other relevant actors along the supply chain, including shareholders, investors, retailers and resellers, respect human rights and sustainability standards in the global electronics sector. Brands and retailers are accountable and provide sufficient transparency for consumers to understand conditions in the electronics supply chain to make informed purchasing decisions.

Civil society stakeholders including trade unions, labour groups, environmental organisations and community groups, play their designated roles, both on the local, national and the international level.