Environmental Stories Are Human Stories

Death By Design director Sue Williams connects communities and workers around the world, from Silicon Valley to upstate New York, to the impact of the toxic materials in our electronic devices.

We’ve got news for you. That shiny, new electronic device that you’re so attached to has a complicated story to tell. One that includes toxic chemicals, heavy metal waste and factory conditions that frequently flout environmental regulations. The story may begin far from where you live, but filmmaker Sue Williams, director of the new documentary Death by Design is on a mission to show you that the impact of your dollars hits closer than you think.

Playing at 6pm on Thursday, September 29th at Kendall Square Cinema, Death By Design is being showcased as a part of Environmental Film Festival On Tour: Boston, one of four exceptional environmental film premieres, that will cover a range of topics, from the science and impact of climate change, to water scarcity, and in this case, the unseen dark side of technology.


In an investigation that spans the globe, Williams investigates the underbelly of the electronics industry and reveals how even the smallest 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.

Read on to see what Williams had to say about the film and the tipping point between consumerism and sustainability:


DCEFF: What drew you to the subject matter of Death By Design?

Sue Williams: About 5 years ago, I met Ma Jun, China’s leading environmental activist. He described his work building public awareness about Chinese factories that were ignoring the country’s environmental regulations.  What shocked him was how many of the polluters were electronics factories. As he said, we think of electronics as a clean industry but there were thousands of factories working for the largest, most famous brands in the world, discharging literally tons of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and waste water directly into China’s rivers and lakes, land and air.

That conversation set me off on a journey exploring the electronics industry and its history. I learned the environmental disaster Ma Jun had discovered is not confined to China. Communities and workers around the world, from Silicon Valley to upstate New York, have had their lives poisoned by the toxic materials in our devices.


DCEFF: What challenges did you face while filming?

SW: This isn’t a subject the electronic companies want to discuss so the biggest challenge was access – from the big brands in the US to the factories in China, no one – except a few courageous workers – wanted to talk or to let us film in their facilities.


DCEFF: What’s been the most successful outcome of the film, so far?

SW: Our first goal is to make people aware of the toxic makeup of our devices – most people simply don’t know how our gadgets are made and unmade – and the film is definitely doing that.


DCEFF: Do you consider Death By Design to be an environmental film? Why/why not?

SW: It’s definitely an environmental film. It is hard to separate the environment from the human and labor rights stories we also explore. The electronics companies have allowed the chemicals and heavy metals they use in production to poison workers and local communities.  These seep into the soil, the water and the air and travel around the world. China may seem far away from us here in the US but eventually this pollution impacts us all.


DCEFF: What do you think makes for a good environmental story?

SW: Often a good environmental film exposes a situation that the general public knows little or nothing about. And it is always good to be able to show solutions, to show the possibility for change.


DCEFF: How do you hope the Boston audience will receive your film?

SW: I hope they will be as shocked as I was when I started making the film. And then I hope that as they realize they are also implicated in this problem, they will change the way they buy and use their devices.


DCEFF: How can viewers take action or get involved, after watching the film?

SW: Viewers can go to our website – deathbydesignfilm.com and sign the petition demanding transparency and responsibility from the brands. They can also find tips and advice on how to make their devices last longer.




Sue Williams has produced and directed five critically acclaimed, feature documentaries about China for national PBS broadcast, including Frontline. Sue also directed two highly praised biographies on Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Pickford for the PBS series, American Experience. Learn more about her and her work here.


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