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Conflict minerals: between hammer and anvil

Conflict minerals can be found in our most common electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers, paid for by us as consumers on the high street. In countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the cash flow from resources is crucial to the war effort, and militia and rebel groups are willing to use brutality to obtain the very minerals which make our phones vibrate when we set our wake up alarms.

When we hand over crisp bank notes, the cash is broken up into chunks and separated between the supplier, manufacturer and eventually reaches the source of these precious metals – often armed groups who use this money to fund conflict.

Civilians who are swept up in violence and intimidation are driven from their homes, subjected to horrendous human rights abuses, and sometimes forced into slave labour to mine these minerals. Armed groups rape men, women and children and this is a demonstrable direct result of the illicit trade in conflict minerals, which has been stoked by the international community.

It’s easy to see how the DRC has ranked the lowest on the United Nations Human Development Index.

But as consumers, campaigners and businesses, how can we prevent the mining of conflict minerals and work to eradicate their widespread use in our supply chains?

conflict minerals

Legislation

International law preventing the trading of conflict minerals has been bolstered in recent years, but onlookers argue that they are not enforced efficiently enough and that more needs to be done to prevent countries buying militia sourced minerals.

However individual countries have taken it upon themselves to self-impose laws which prevent businesses using conflict minerals. For example, the United States introduced section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires listed companies to complete due diligence on mineral purchases before reporting publically to regulators.

This drip-drop approach has dispersed to other trading countries sourcing minerals, including nations like China are developing similar policies, where more than 70% of the EU’s mobile phones were made, and who import over 4000 tonnes of minerals from Colombia, DRC and neighbouring countries.

Whilst these progresses have been hailed as positive steps, it appeared as if the EU were taking the surprisingly lax approach to ensuring that businesses sourced conflict free minerals.

The challenge for campaigners and the public is to keep applying pressure to Governments and corporations to have crystal clear transparency in supply chains

A weakened bill was proposed simply urging companies to voluntarily reveal where they source their minerals from, which reinforced the view that these laws do nothing to legally bind companies to buy conflict-free.

As a reaction, campaign groups worked thoroughly to highlight the need for stronger intervention in supply chains.

On October 2014, together with a group of responsible investors and organisations, Triodos Investment Management published a joint investor statement to the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council, calling upon the EU policy makers to ensure more compatibility between the proposed EU conflict minerals regulation and the more robust and influential Dodd-Frank Act.

The EU delivered a stronger, bolder promise as in May 2015, MEP’s in Strasbourg voted to enforce an obligatory monitoring system for business supply chains – meaning 800,000 European companies will need to assess and report where they source minerals from.

Despite the groundbreaking steps by proactive lawmakers, we are still waiting for the culture of gutting out conflict minerals in supply chains to be addressed. Global Witness and Amnesty International have reported that 80% of US companies who filed regulator reports failed to do the minimum required by the Dodd-Frank law, which means that the implementation of legal progress needs a more rigorous approach.

Whilst progress is clearly a process, the challenge for campaigners and the public is to keep applying pressure to Governments and corporations to have crystal clear transparency in supply chains. After all, we have yet to silence this alarm for good.

conflict minerals

Ground pressure

The good news is that some of the biggest manufacturers of technology are taking notice and beginning to influence industry.

Perhaps as a result of the Dodd Frank Act, Apple Inc. announced in March 2016 that it has reached a supply-chain milestone in transparency – saying it’s now auditing 100% of its suppliers for the use of conflict minerals linked to violent militia groups in the DRC. The worlds largest technology company also publishes a full list of it’s suppliers, so we as consumers know the name of every mining company that they use. This follows similar moves by tech giants Microsoft and Intel.

conflict mineralsThese steps taken by big business to abide by these laws and promote the anti-conflict mineral cause will continue to create waves, throughout supply chains. Around the same time as Apple Inc.’s big announcement, the University of Edinburgh, with over 12,000 staff and 35,000 students accessing University owned technology, became the first UK higher education institution to declare that they will ask their suppliers to detail how they source raw materials.

But are there other ways which we can ensure that conflict minerals aren’t leaking into our products?

A growing number of mines in the DRC have now been validated as conflict-free, making it easier for companies to choose suppliers that they can trust to be responsibly sourced.

At the latest count, released in August 2015, 140 of 180 mines assessed in the DRC have been found to be conflict-free. The list of validated conflict-free mines is part of a certification framework, known as the Regional Certification Mechanism, that was developed by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), an intergovernmental organisation of 12 African countries.

Whilst all of this progress is working towards safeguarding the future, for us as consumers, how can we ensure that our products are safe to use today, rather than tomorrow?

Increasingly, we are seeing products which are greenlit as conflict-free, who are voluntarily supporting the cause. Fairphone, which is a customer and supplier to Triodos Bank, is a social enterprise that has spearheaded the movement for fairer electronics. Having sold over 60,000 Fairphones, the Amsterdam based tech organisation boasts that it’s supply chain which includes minerals from DRC is entirely conflict free. The organisation moves one step forward by working closely with manufacturers to ensure that safe conditions, fair wages and worker representation is introduced.

Organisations such as Ethical Consumer and campaign charity Enough Project have summarised which companies use conflict minerals in technology devices so you can navigate and influence through your shopping habits.

conflict minerals

Future

As laws are changing locally and internationally, and enforcement becomes obligatory rather than voluntary, the complex and muddy path to total transparency in supply chains is becoming clearer.

For the people who suffer from the extraction of conflict minerals and the corresponding sexual violence, harassment and intimidation, their future will be to benefit directly from legal trades, supported by the international community.

They need humane commitments from lawmakers, businesses and consumers to help unlock their potential for growth and aid their development.

That’s the focus, and that’s the gold we are searching for.

What do you think of "Conflict minerals: between hammer and anvil"

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Marvin 2 years ago

Is there a list of minerals we should question the origin?