The Fender Stratocaster is the archetypal guitar that everyone imagines when they think of electric guitars. It was originally released in 1954 and in the following decades it was near omnipresent in pop music. It is still sold today and is a popular choice for any aspiring guitarists. Fender has become synonymous with quality in the industry; as a result the Stratocaster starts at the lofty price of $600. The materials and production justify this price, but not the low price of Fender’s cheaper “Squier” model that is manufactured under dubious conditions.
The standard Stratocaster body is made of ash or alder wood (which are the same materials Fender used almost 70 years ago), which is then lacquered. Guitar frets are made of a “nickel-silver” alloy, and the pickups are an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt (AlNiCo) serving as a magnet with copper wiring on the inside. The pickguard (white part under the strings) is plastic, and the strings themselves vary depending on what you buy, but generally electric guitar strings are steel/nickel. Ash is a common hardwood harvested in the U.S. from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) approved forests. FSC is a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible forest management with certifications. Nonprofits that give out certifications can be suspicious depending on where their money comes from, but there is evidence that FSC forests have lower deforestation rates. Alder wood grows quickly in many different climatic conditions and is sustainably gathered through a method called “coppicing” where the tree stump is able to regenerate, regrowing after it is cut down. The lacquer paint Fender most commonly uses nowadays is polyester-based. Polyester resin is of course dependent on oil to an extent, meaning it is not a bio-resin. However, don’t assume polyester resin is nearly as bad as polyester fabric in terms of overproduction and waste. Nickel mining can be quite controversial due to sulfur dioxide emissions, producing lots of industrial waste, and harboring dangerous conditions for its laborers. Cobalt is a metal that is essential to powering alternative energy sources like electric cars, yet it is the subject of much debate because of the unregulated conditions it’s mined in. It is mostly mined from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where there are child laborers and many work-related deaths. Perhaps a shift towards employing mostly steel alloys would be the best option as steel production is becoming more and more refined, and the material essentially lasts forever as it is recycled again and again.
Fender’s iconic guitars, like the Stratocaster, are primarily made in a factory in Corona, California. Its cheaper line of guitars, “Squire”, are manufactured in Mexico, China, Korea, and Indonesia. The factory in California offers decent pay and benefits for its workers while the factories outside of the United States are questionable. The factories in Asia are of particular concern as the manufacturer is “Cort Guitars” who also make guitars for other popular brands. Cort has drastically improved its quality of guitars over the last 20 years, yet has become infamous for its complete neglect of working conditions. There are reports of Cort not paying workers compensation for injuries, worker suicides, and various other offences. Supposedly Fender’s code of conduct does not apply to manufacturers outside of the U.S. The actual guitar-building process itself is done by a combination of handwork and machine-work, woodworking and wiring.
Fender was founded in 1946 in Fullerton, California (not far from the Corona factory). Other than some information about a code of conduct, which doesn’t apply to Cort workers, Fender is not particularly open about their business. There is no public ESG or CSR reports from Fender. They did donate to the nonprofit “Greenpeace” in support of sustainable logging, but this seems more like a PR move than a commitment to sustainability. Fender is an iconic brand in the music industry, that should really be held accountable for sourcing guitars from terrible manufacturers. They have hardly made any commitments to “going green” in a modern world when consumers are finally looking for these commitments. Almost every guitarist wants to own a Strat at some point, and if you must have it, don’t cheap out and buy a Squier Stratocaster made by neglected workers. It’s not a bad idea for Fender to sell a cheaper line of products, but they need to execute it better. They are large enough to manufacture their own instruments without letting Cort do it, and this way they can regulate their factories.