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Technology and conflict minerals

To build the components that make up a computing device requires a plethora of raw materials. Among these are a number of metal elements that are commonly sourced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the mining trade has, for many years, been used to fund brutal conflicts.

Conflicts in the DRC are notably in the Eastern regions of the country, as well as in neighbouring states.

Various paramilitary groups fight for control of small-scale artisan mines, where grave human rights abuses including forced labour and child labour are commonplace and the money raised funds further violence, exploitation and corruption.

Conflict minerals have, for a long time, been defined by policymakers under the umbrella term 3TG: tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold.

In recent years it has frequently been suggested that the trade in cobalt, of which 75% of the world’s supply is mined in DRC, is similarly linked to the conflict in the region. However, cobalt is not specified in existing conflict minerals legislation.

These five chemical elements are widely used in electronic and electrical devices including PCs and mobile phones: tantalum is commonly used for capacitors on circuit boards, tin in solder, tungsten is used in phone vibration mechanisms and gold is in connectors – although each has multiple other uses. Cobalt is widely used in the production of batteries.

How are conflict minerals currently addressed?

In the United States, the Dodd-Frank Act came into force in 2012 and requires all publicly listed companies to check their supply chains for tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold that may be sourced from the DRC or surrounding countries.

To comply, companies must conduct ‘due diligence’ checks to ensure that the smelters and refiners which process 3TG minerals have adequate processes in place to avoid financing conflict in the region.

In 2017, the EU passed legislation that will require EU businesses to ensure that 3TG minerals are sourced responsibly. This will come into force in 2021 and is an important and necessary step. If the UK leaves the EU, it should ensure that it upholds this legislation.

Both the US and the proposed EU laws are based on the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, which sets out five key steps a company should follow:

  1. Establish strong company management systems.
  2. Identify and assess risk in the supply chain.
  3. Design and implement a strategy to respond to identified risks.
  4. Carry out an independent third-party audit of supply chain due diligence.
  5. Report annually on supply chain due diligence.

Ethical Consumer ratings for conflict minerals

Ethical Consumer expected all laptop, PC and smartphone manufacturers to have an adequate policy addressing conflict minerals regardless of whether they were bound to do so by law. To get our best rating, these companies were required to list specific examples of how they had carried out the five steps above, rather than simply referring to them. You can see how tech companies rated in our guides to laptop, PC and smartphone brands.

Impact of policies on conflict minerals

The effects of the Dodd-Frank Act and related reforms on the situation in the DRC have been debated. Some criticisms suggest that the measures caused companies to altogether avoid sourcing minerals from the region, which led to further destructive effects on the lives and livelihoods of people.

This problem seems to have been greatest between the time that DoddFrank was announced in 2010, and when the final rules were published in 2012. The rules stipulate that companies should continue to actively source from the region to support a responsible, conflict-free mineral trade. 

Since then, studies have shown improvements in the situation for miners in the DRC, with significant reductions in the proportion of tin, tungsten and tantalum mines under the control of armed groups (although this trend has not been observed with gold mines).

Tech companies can go further 

Even by following the guidelines and legislation, it is difficult for companies to guarantee their products are ‘conflictfree’, as complex supply chains mean tracing the origin of minerals is far from straightforward. However, companies like Fairphone are pioneering new methods of ensuring their products are conflict-free (see our ethical shopping guide to Mobile Phones).

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