The camera industry has been on a bit of a crazy roller-coaster ride over the last 20 years. Camera sales exploded in the first years of the 21st century, when everyone was scrapping their old film cameras and embracing digital.
Then sales collapsed, probably largely as a result of the rise of smartphones. Since 2008, the total sales of stand-alone cameras has more than halved. Even sales of high-class cameras have been falling.
Given this, it is unsurprising that some companies have started to pull out of the camera market altogether. Eastman Kodak stopped making personal cameras in 2012. There are rumours that Samsung is following suit, and while we were writing this guide it announced that it is shutting the UK wing of its camera business. We have, however, still covered it because, for the time being, it is still part of the market.
With the exception of Samsung, which is South Korean, all of the companies examined in this guide are Japanese.
All the camera companies were rated for their policy on the use of conflict minerals such as gold and tungsten.
All of the companies mentioned conflict minerals as an issue in their reporting but half of them scored our worst rating for having inadequate policies. Only Sony scored our best rating.
Companies score poorly on supply chain policies
Japanese and Korean electronics companies tend to produce many of their high-value electronic components, like semiconductors, domestically but subcontract lower-value manufacturing to poorer countries like Vietnam, India and China.
There has now been a lot of publicity about bad working conditions in electronics manufacturing: overwork, bullying, accidents and casual employment are very common.
However, this publicity doesn’t seem to have translated into much concern from the companies examined. In some sectors that have been under pressure, such as clothing, we have found companies eager to boast about all the wonderful things that they are doing to improve conditions in their supply chains. This was not the case in the camera industry. Companies had little or nothing to say on the subject. All of them, without exception, received our worst rating for supply chain management.
Our feature on optics companies and hunting included the Nikon, Pentax, Canon, Fujifilm and Olympus camera brands. Canon and Olympus were the recommended brands.
Nikon is also subject to a boycott call by Viva! for selling telescopic sights for hunting rifles and promoting hunting, particularly big game in Africa.
Links to the military and surveillance
Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are all active in China’s ‘Homeland security’ (surveillance) market. Indeed, Panasonic boasts that “numerous Panasonic surveillance cameras have been installed across China to help create a safer living environment”. It’s lucky that, as everyone knows, Chinese government surveillance is entirely benign, otherwise this fact might not be so cheering. All three companies sell CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition software.
Several of the companies also have links to the military. Samsung sold its armaments division in 2015, but it still sells optical and communications equipment to military buyers, as do Panasonic, Fujifilm and Olympus. And Nikon is part of Mitsubishi, a group of interconnected Japanese companies which, as a group, is the 21st biggest weapons manufacturer in the world. Until recently it sold arms exclusively to the Japanese government as exporting weapons was banned in Japan. However, the ban was lifted in 2014, and it has now signed a major weapons deal with the USA.
On a more positive note, Panasonic and Samsung both make solar panels, and all the companies except Casio make medical imaging products.