Friends of the Earth “Make It Better Campaign” Starts With Smartphones

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A tin mining pit in Bangka, Indonesia

The United Kingdom-based environmental awareness group, Friends of the Earth, is pushing European companies to be more transparent about their supply chains and raw materials used in their products. F.O.E. has launched a hub with the aim to pressure the European Union to mandate that companies operating and selling goods in Europe use materials more responsibly and ethically.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that F.O.E. has started this initiative with a stinging rebuke of the leading global smartphone manufacturers.

Last weekend F.O.E. published a report that focused on tin mining in Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s second largest exporter of tin, an important component in smart phones. Since the islands became a colony of the Dutch centuries ago, mining companies have extracted tin for a bevy of uses. Today much of the tin flowing out of Indonesia comes from the island of Bangka, located just east of Sumatra.

And so while Samsung and Apple slug it out over patent disputes, F.O.E.’s research shows that the two companies have one thing in common: they both deal with suppliers that have sourced tin from Bangka. What are some of the results of this industry on locals who toil in the island’s tin mines?

Land and sea tin mining in Bangka have both led to the following results:

  • An average of one miner a week died according to 2011 official police statistics.
  • The local drinking water is often polluted.
  • Not only is the local landscape forever altered, but once-fertile land has become poisoned.
  • Sources of local drinking water end up tainted.
  • On sea beds, silt containing tin is killing the basic marine life, from mangroves to sea grass to coral.
  • Fisheries have suffered, and sea life, including endangered giant clams and tortoises, is threatened.
  • Workers can barely make ends meet, making as little as $9 a day.

The report calls out Samsung for purchasing tin from a supplier, PT Timah, which purchases 90 percent of its materials from Bangka. F.O.E. has put Apple under scrutiny as well. Two of Foxconn’s vendors, Shenmao and Chernan, both purchase 90 percent of its tin from Indonesia. And since 90 percent of Indonesia’s tin comes from Bangka, the solder Foxconn uses to solder iPhones means that tainted tin is most likely in these coveted phones. To that end, F.O.E. is challenging Samsung and Apple to offer more transparency about its supply chain, while developing a plan to ensure that tin is not causing any social or environmental disruption.

With both Apple and Samsung together selling 188 million smartphones in 2011, F.O.E. insists that these companies become more transparent about the water, energy, carbon and materials that end up in their phones. The NGO is also pushing all smartphone manufacturers to ramp up standardization and use better materials, not to mention improved designs that would make it easier to repair these devices. In sum, these phones have got to “make it better.”

So will these smartphone giants actually listen? Stay tuned.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable BusinessInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.

Image credit: Friends of the Earth

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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