Laptops, smart phones, tablets—these are among our favorite electronic gadgets. We use them to do laudable things—stay connected in emergencies, democratize access to education, mobilize the workforce. Good things. So it stings to be reminded that our electronic toys and so many other popular products often rely on raw materials with ethically questionable sources.
HP is facing this supply chain issue head on. Last week, the firm announced plans to achieve a conflict-free supply chain by encouraging suppliers to earn certification as a Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS). HP is hoping to lead the industry in the use of conflict-free smelters and refiners, an important component in an ethical supply chain in the IT industry. HP also became the first IT company to publicly release its supply chain smelter list and seek independent review for its smelter identification process.
The metals tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold (sometimes referred to as "3TG") are used in many products and common in electronics goods. To illustrate the ethical complications of 3TG, the HP release points to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where mining for 3TG is linked with the funding of armed groups embroiled in a civil war. In response, HP has worked on an international level to find conflict-free mines within the DRC. It launched the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) Extractives working group, which established the CFS program.
Looking at the list of HP’s smelters, it won’t be immediately evident to customers and stakeholders how HP is performing. Transparency is one thing, but expert interpretation and perhaps some journalistic investigation will be needed to add qualitative meaning through evaluation. For now, it is good to see a company taking on the logistical challenge of easing the ethical burden of our glowing screens, printers, and enterprise servers.
HP views CFS as another step on the road towards greater supply chain transparency.
“We approached this issue with the same rigor as other complex operating challenges and have achieved something notable,” said Tony Prophet, senior vice president of supply chain operations at HP, in a company release. “We are committed to collaborating across our supply chain as well as with NGOs and industry organizations to drive responsible sourcing within the Democratic Republic of the Congo and achieve a Conflict-Free Supply Chain.”
The CFS is part of a larger effort by HP’s Supply Chain Social and Environmental Responsibility program. In February, HP announced plans to reduce student and underage labor in China. In 2008, HP reports that it was the first company to begin publishing a list of its first-tier suppliers. That represented about 95 percent of HP’s suppliers at the time. According to the company, today HP has a relatively large supply chain for its industry—consisting of tens of thousands of suppliers across over 45 countries.
(Image credit: Rod Allday)
Melanie Colburn is a sustainable business writer and consultant based in San Francisco. Melanie's done some interesting work in corporate social responsibility and sustainability-- with organizations like Autodesk, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and Nestle. She holds an an MBA with honors (Sustainable Business) from San Francisco State University and a BA with honors from University of California, Berkeley. Contact her at melanie.a.colburn[@]gmail.com and @MelanieAColburn on Twitter.