How Far Must One Product Travel Just to Reach Your Hands?

Katie Glasscock- Period 4

What seems more important? A working toilet or a cell phone? Most, hopefully, would answer that question with a working toilet. However, in the world, it seems that it is a cell phone, as more people have access to a cell phone than a working toilet. According to the U.N, “out of the world’s estimated 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to mobile phone, [while] only 4.5 billion people have access to working toilets.”[1] As shown, cell phones are a huge part of daily life. Although millions of people every day pick up their cell phone to make a call or send a quick text, many never think about where it came from or how it was made. On first glance, one might think that it was produced by one machine in a factory in the United States. Contrary to this, a cell phone can travel all around the world before a first text is sent or that first call is made.

At Ursuline and within the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex, it seems as if everyone has an IPhone. Around the world, this statistic is 18%.[2] It is a very high chance that this 18% did not have to travel far to pick up their brand new, shiny piece of metal many consider their “baby.” But what many do not realize is that an IPhone travels approximately 20,096 miles all around the world before it even ships from Apple headquarters to your local Apple store.[3] It journeys all around the globe, and makes stops in places like the U.K., Germany, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China. Your one small IPhone takes all this time and travels to all these places just so it can be created with the components that make up the phone that we use to do tasks that take us less than 5 seconds. Why does your IPhone have to travel all over the world just to be created? It is because of division of labor and productivity.

Another example of this is about pancakes. When asked, many would say that they know how to make pancakes. They would claim it is simple, just mix some eggs, flour, water, and salt, pour it onto a griddle, and flip it when the bottom is done. However, it is really not as simple as this. Thinking about the first ingredient, eggs, many would think of obtaining eggs as simply going to the local grocery store and picking some up, or even just asking a neighbor. But how did those eggs get to the grocery store? It is as simple as a truck, right? No. There are many components that go into making a truck: the engine, the tires, and even the person who drives the truck. Even before that, the eggs have to come from the chickens. That alone has many components. For example, who owns the chickens and the shed the live in? Where did the shed come from? Where did the wood come from to make the shed and who built it? Although the egg did not have to travel all around the world like the IPhone does before making it to your local grocery store, there is the same amount of work if not more put into getting the egg  from the chicken to the truck that travels to the grocery store. By breaking down every single step that goes into making something or precisely looking at how something evolves to what we know it to be, we can see the concept of division of labor.

Division of labor is defined, by, as “a production process in which a worker or group of workers is assigned a specialized task in order to increase efficiency.”[4] Adam Smith says, “This great increase of the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labour, the same number of people are capable of preforming, is owing to three different circumstances; first to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many.” As shown, there are many benefits to a division of labor. In simple terms, Smith is saying that the three benefits to division of labor are that people can get really good at one thing, it saves time, and lastly, it boosts the motivation of workers to become experts at a particular production task to later develop machines that can save time and energy.

The most important aspect of the three benefits of the concept of division of labor is the fact that people can become experts in their field of labor and increase their dexterity in one particular subject so that the workman becomes more efficient within his job. Specialization, in economics, is referred to as “how an individual, organization, state, or country focuses available resources.”[5] In a country specialization is especially beneficial when the notion of comparative advantage is in place. Comparative advantage is the total output will be greatest when each is produced by the nation that has the lowest domestic opportunity cost for producing that good. Specialization is beneficial because it increase a country’s productivity. It can lead to an increase in productivity because it reduces the transition time in between tasks.[6]

Division of labor leads to specialization, which then leads to division of knowledge. Division of knowledge relates to division of labor in the sense that increases productivity. But instead of increasing the country’s productivity, it is increasing an individual’s productivity. Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel Peace prize winner for the subject of economics, stated that each workman has a unique form of knowledge that is “of the particular circumstances of time and place.”[7] What Hayek is saying in a sense is that each person has a special talent and when that talent is practiced, the workman can increase his knowledge on the subject and therefore becoming very good at whatever that is.

On the other hand not related to specialization, division of labor has to do with opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. This relates to division of labor because there is so much time, so much energy, and so much effort put into one making one single item. For example, if you bought eggs not for their main, sole purpose of nourishing hunger, and using them, to say, egg a house of an ex-boyfriend, there is a high opportunity cost. The question here is if it is really worth all the work put into creating and transporting that one egg just for it to be wasted and destroyed within a couple seconds.  Therefore,  the opportunity cost of egging a house is the time put into the egg, and mainly, breakfast.

In conclusion, all of this relates back to Leonard E. Read’s I, Pencil. He writes this essay from the point of a simple graphite pencil, and makes the assertion “Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me…[even] when there are about what and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A each year.”[8]  He makes this statement confidently because of the idea of the division of labor. Using the example with the pancakes and the egg, not one person can have a farm with chickens, and transport all the materials, and within that, create a truck with a working engine. It is simply impossible! Although the complexity of making one thing can be confusing at some times, if one thinks about it, the division of labor really saves time, money, and energy within the production process.


[1] Wang, Yue. “More People Have Cell Phones Than Toilets, U.N. Study Shows |” TIME.

[2] Costello, Sam. “How Many iPhones Have Been Sold Worldwide?.” iPhone / iPod.

[3] Prakash, Neha. “iPhone 5 Travels 20,096 Miles Before Ending Up in Your Hands [INFOGRAPHIC].” Mashable.

[4] “division of labor.”

[5] Akers, Helen. “What Is the Meaning of Specialization in Economics?.” Work.

[6] Sarokin, David. “How the Specialization of Labor Can Lead to Increased Productivity.” Small Business.

[7] Hayek, Friedrich August von. “No. 4.” InThe use of knowledge in society. S.l.: [s.n.], 1945. 519-530.

[8] Read, Leonard E.. I, Pencil. New York: Irvington-on-Hudson, 1958.



One thought on “How Far Must One Product Travel Just to Reach Your Hands?

  1. This is very interesting. I always thought that an iphone was just created in California and then shipped to the apple stores around the country.I never knew that it had to go all around the world first! Also, i tried thinking about the egg thing, and how you need a truck to transport it, and how you need an engine for the truck, and then parts for the engine, and so on. It is really interesting to think that it is such a complex process just for one small thing like an egg.

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