Intel, Apple Embrace “Conflict-Free” Minerals, Others Lag Behind

A report out this month ranks electronics companies based on their use of so-called conflict minerals from Congo. The Enough Project—whose members include policymakers and activists focused on ending genocide and crimes against humanity worldwide—finds that many companies are making progress in eliminating conflict minerals from their supply chain, but there is still a long way to go.

Leading the way are Intel, Motorola Solutions, HP, and Apple, who have all taken steps in key areas like smelter auditing. Others have done little to address conflict minerals concerns, claiming they are not directly responsible for raw materials that end up in their products.

The report—Taking Conflict Out of Consumer Gadgets—identifies three areas in which electronics companies have made significant advances over the past two years: tracing the  source of minerals through the supply chain, third-party auditing through the industry wide Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program, and clean-minerals certification.

These steps have had an effect on the ongoing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the report finds, with armed groups generating only 35 percent of what they made from the trade in tin, tantalum, and tungsten two years ago.

Gold smuggling remains an issue however, and there’s plenty of room for improvement all around. Electronics companies can go much further in tracing the source of minerals through every tier of the supply chain, and they should be doing more to cover the auditing costs of smelters, the report states.

Within the last 18 months, the CFS program has certified 12 tantalum, two tin, and six gold smelters as conflict free, but no tungsten smelters have been designated conflict free as of yet.

This should improve over time as other industries using conflict minerals, such as automotive, jewelry, aerospace, and industrial machinery, take steps to tackle the problem.

Joining programs like the CFS and the Public Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) would be a good start for these industries, but auditing should be done in the bright light of day the report warns, overseen by industry, civil society, independent experts, and governments alike to ensure full disclosure and transparency.

To many companies, tracing source materials through the supply chain may seem overwhelming or too expensive. Despite public pressure, these companies fail to hold themselves accountable, and at great cost to reputation.

The laws around conflict minerals have been murky, but this could all change later this month when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is expected to vote on conflict minerals legislation requiring industry to disclose whether it sources metals from conflict zones.

In light of new legislation some may choose to avoid sourcing from Congo altogether, but this will only serve to alienate and punish the legitimate branches of the Congolese mining community.

And turning to other regions for raw materials can come with it’s own costs. China is one of the biggest producers of tungsten and tin, for instance, but China’s rare earth monopoly and its bid to control supply may spell trouble for the U.S. and other countries that rely on minerals sourced in other countries.

The answer, the Enough report concludes, is for companies and governments to continue to work together with Congo to ensure that only “clean” minerals end up in our gadgets.

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Photo Credit: Responsible Sourcing Network on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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