With global demand for electronics surging – especially for tablet computers like Apple’s iPad – these gadgets’ sophistication and long battery life have created a huge market for rare earth minerals, often associated with global conflicts. Elements like copper and even rarer tungsten, neodymium, dysprosium, coltan, and terbium are tagged with the “conflict” label because of their concentration in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This area that borders Rwanda has been the scene of a war that supposedly concluded in 2003, but still produces hostilities between various warring factions. Much of the fighting has been funded by the extraction of these conflict minerals, and children have found themselves forced into the dirty and dangerous work required to ready these elements for export.
With activists and consumers increasingly frustrated over the dubious sources from which our electronics are manufactured, a coalition of manufacturers, government agencies, and non-profits launched the Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program last December. The CSF identifies smelters through independent third party auditors who can assess that raw materials did not originate from sources that profit off off the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now Intel and Apple have stopped purchasing minerals from this region, which has transformed a voluntary program to what the president of an exporter association in Congo called “an embargo.”
Some advocates may applaud Apple and Intel for taking this step, but the reality is that the two tech giants did not have much of a choice. When the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act passed through the American Congress and won President Obama’s signature last July, one section buried in the bill (revealing the brilliance or madness of how America churns legislation) issued regulations to prevent the purchase of conflict minerals, effective this month. The enforcement of this prevision has been left to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which in 2012 will require companies to audit their mineral supplies to verify that any purchases were not made from vendors that have any affiliation with the conflict in eastern Congo.
Furthermore, like other laws and voluntary initiatives that start with good intentions, the CFS program will not stop rare earth mineral exporters from finding new markets in Asia. Companies like Intel and Apple may face a headache as they scour their supply chains to guarantee that their products have zero components originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Nevertheless, the CFS program sends a message to mining companies in central Africa and elsewhere to clean up their act. Furthermore, the backlash against the mining of conflict minerals may help spark further innovation of electronics that are not so dependent on conflict minerals. Apple is already scrambling because of the effect that the Japanese earthquake and tsunami had on their supply chain. Other companies are spooked by the increasing cost of rare earth metals because of their concentration in only a few regions around the world. As tablet computers become even more sophisticated and rise in consumer acceptance, future materials, such as those created thanks to nanotechnology, could help wean companies off of these rare earth minerals.