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Conflict Minerals in Electronics

Time to take techno responsibility


Conflict Minerals in Electronics

Ethical consumers take note: your new gadget is likely made of conflict minerals tied to human rights abuses in the DRC. See how the Enough Project is helping.

Back-to-school shopping has gone high tech, with laptops in as much demand as HB pencils. Enviro-savvy students and their parents purchase devices with lower power consumption and recycled materials. Ethically minded consumers take note: your new gadget likely has ties to armed conflict and human rights abuses in Eastern Congo.

Consumer electronic devices from smart phones to laptops to video game consoles rely on specific metals in order to function properly. Tantalum stores electrical charge (which is interpreted as data and information), tungsten allows phones to vibrate, tin is used to solder connections, and gold is found on printed circuit boards.

These metals are mined around the world with approximately 12 percent coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a region torn apart by years of civil war and violence. Military and rebel groups control the mines, using the proceeds to buy weapons and ammunition. As these groups are not held to account, they get away with environmental destruction, dangerous working conditions, and the exploitation of child labour.

Soldiers and rebels regularly commit sexual assaults against women and girls for punishment and to gain compliance among populations, earning the DRC the dubious distinction as the “rape capital of the world.”

While it should be a simple matter of not importing conflict minerals or not buying the products that contain them, it really isn’t that simple for consumers or manufacturers.

A sneaky conundrum

Discerning the origin of raw materials is difficult, given the complex path that metals follow from mine to MP3 player. As they are smuggled from the DRC, mineral ores change hands multiple times, and paperwork is often falsified or ignored. Regulation is difficult, as government-appointed inspectors are not permitted to do their jobs, either due to insufficient funding or threats from mine controllers.

The Congolese government is powerless to stop the smuggling, as evidenced by its ban on mining. The ban may have made the problem worse, allowing hardships among civilians to increase and militia groups to enact tighter control, making it impossible for a traceability and certification process to be put in place. (This could change; as of March 2011 the ban on mining was lifted.)

Manufacturers that are aware of the problem have difficulty finding out where their minerals come from. Each device contains dozens of different components, many of which are subcontracted out by other manufacturers, who in turn receive their materials from a mix of providers, who then get their ore from different sources.

Who’s at fault?

Simply put—everyone from consumers to manufacturers to governments.

Planned obsolescence and marketing drive consumer appetites for the newest devices, which increases manufacturers’ demand for minerals. When you consider every MP3 player, computer, television, and cell phone purchased over the past 15 years worldwide, they mask an incalculable amount of human suffering.

However, things are starting to change.

Taking steps

With the encouragement of nonprofit activist groups, major manufacturers of consumer electronics are beginning to acknowledge and act on the problem. In the December 2010 report, Getting to Conflict-Free, the Enough Project (, a nonprofit organization, surveyed 21 manufacturers of consumer electronics according to five criteria:

  • Tracing: has the company traced its suppliers of metals?
  • Auditing: how well does the company monitor its suppliers to ensure that no conflict minerals are being used?
  • Certification: has the company taken concrete steps to develop an international certification regime for the 3TG (tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold) minerals?
  • Stakeholder engagement: has the company had regular engagement with the NGO coalition, led by Enough, on the conflict minerals issue?
  • Support for legislation: has the company supported the legislation on conflict minerals?

The report indicates that the responding companies had varying levels of progress and many challenges, such as loopholes that can allow for false reporting on supply chains. One company’s metal supplier reported that their tin ores were sourced from Japan, even though Japan does not mine or export tin ores. Other companies cited the difficulty in getting answers as an excuse for not acting.

Other companies took the challenge head-on, supporting lobbying, and visiting their factories and metal suppliers, while making public statements on the issue. The top five companies for meeting these criteria are HP, Intel, Motorola, Nokia, and Microsoft, although the fact that HP only met 32 percent of the requirements shows that much more can be done.

Legislating change

The American government passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was supposed to come into force in April 2011. Section 1502 of the Act addresses the conflict minerals issue, mandating that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) create rules on the tracing, disclosure, and certification of minerals from conflict zones such as the DRC. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, manufacturers will be required to annually report to the SEC.

While promising, the SEC missed its April 2011 deadline. Enforcement of the Act was delayed until August to December 2011, meaning that the Dodd-Frank Act is not currently enforced. And with no independent certification in place, abuses in the region can continue.

In Canada, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar introduced Bill C-571 in September 2010, which proposed that companies must practise due diligence regarding minerals mined in the Great Lakes Region of Africa (which includes the DRC). This bill died when Parliament was dissolved for the May 2011 election, but Dewar plans on reintroducing the bill.

What can you do?

Even though it’s likely that all your electronics contain conflict minerals, an outright boycott is unrealistic. Still, there are many things you can do.

  • Rethink and reduce consumption. If you mostly use your computer for email, Internet, and word processing, you probably don’t need a new computer if your older one works fine.
  • Maintain and repair rather than replace. If your computer is running slower than it used to, it might only need a tune-up. Help can be obtained either professionally or from self-taught enthusiasts who can help you get your system running smoothly.
  • Take care of your stuff! Safe computing practices will reduce the likelihood of damage to your electronics, allowing you to use them longer.
  • Vote with your wallet. Support companies firmly committed to using conflict-free minerals (see table below).
  • Educate yourself and raise awareness.
  • Contact your local Member of Parliament to support the reintroduction of Bill C-571.

A positive outcome to the conflict minerals issue can only result from the combined effort of industry, governments, nonprofit groups—and consumers.

In 2010 the Enough Project ranked 21 leading consumer electronics manufacturers for their actions on the conflict minerals issue.

Companies such as HP and Intel ranked highest for leading the industry in sourcing, auditing, and tracing their materials, while lobbying government and being transparent in their actions. Mid- to lower-ranked companies, such as IBM and Sony, are just starting initiatives while offering only vague assurances of their actions. Companies with a 0 percent rating have not indicated any interest in or action on the issue.

Company On the right track (over 15% score) Room for improvement (5 to 14% score) Falling behind (less than 5% score)
HP 32%
Intel 24%
Motorola 22%
Nokia 19%
Microsoft 15%
Dell 15%
RIM (BlackBerry) 14%
Apple 13%
Acer 13%
Philips 11%
Samsung 7%
LG 6%
Sony Ericsson 5%
IBM 5%
Lenovo 5%
SanDisk 4%
Toshiba 2%
Panasonic 0%
Canon 0%
Sharp 0%
Nintendo 0%

Source: the Enough Project



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