Conflict minerals are the new diamonds.
As the demand for groovy electronics like smartphones, MP3 players, and cellular phone have increase, more consumers are starting to inquire about the sources from which elements including tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are extracted.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the eye of the storm for these “conflict minerals.” The resource rich nation of 70 million people has already suffered decades of conflict, and the new riches have only exacerbated the problem for many of its citizens. Mines in Eastern Congo are often located in isolated regions, smack in the middle of armed guerillas who claim these areas as their turf. The results are brutal: rape and violence are far too common, and miners work up to 48 hours at a time at mines such as those at Bisie—many of them children, the miners risk mudslides and tunnel collapses in attempting to make a living.
Some may wonder why we are even bother doing business in this region at all, but mining often provides the only available jobs, and most consumers in the West would probably not want to do without devices ranging from the iPad to anti-lock braking systems to hearing aids.
Last month Steve Jobs of Apple claimed in an email that his company requires its suppliers to verify in writing that they use conflict-free minerals. Now that disclosure is US law. The behemoth Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act may require companies using conflict minerals to state their use—in fact, publicly disclosed companies must report to the Securities and Exchange Commission if they are sourcing such minerals from Congo. The bill also tasks the State Department with developing a strategy for addressing the mineral trade in this region, including the creation of a report linking armed groups to conflict minerals.
Most likely this will not change your smartphone options—the law does not ban the use of these minerals from any region—companies just have to state whether or not they are using such materials. Some companies, including HP, have already voiced support for the law. It could be a boon to some companies’ corporate social responsibility efforts—if their products are mineral free, they can slap a label on their goods highlighting that feature.
The real debate centers on Congo. Will this reduce conflict in a nation that has suffered enough? Or will this drive business out of the country, making life more difficult for people that have a hard enough time building a life for their families? Will the label “conflict mineral free” just join the labels including “cage free,” “free range,” “green,” “earth advantage” and “dolphin safe” that may make consumers feel better but really do not address the problems linked to consumerism? What do you think?