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Making the Case for 100% Conflict-Free Electronics

Saman Baghestani, Founder, WeMakeChange

This statement is addressed to the chief executive officers, boards of directors, shareholders, stakeholders, supply chain managers, and procurement officials of electronics manufacturers worldwide, including extended supply chain firms and intermediaries, particularly firms who generate a significant portion of their revenues from the sale or manufacture of cellular and smartphones.  

It is my intention to persuade you to immediately consider taking the necessary steps to transform your supply chains and embrace the notion of sustainable development[1] by embedding environmental and social considerations into your management and operational DNA, or corporate culture, with the same emphasis you place on economic bottom-line values when making decisions.  This document provides research-based recommendations of actions which, if taken, have the potential to drastically reduce the impacts stemming from conflict minerals in the Great Lakes Region.

As of today, the vast majority of the tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (3TG) used in your products come from mines operated and controlled by armed groups who use violence and brute force against the mine’s workers, the village people in surrounding mine communities, and the various export intermediaries and traders that operate along the trading routes between the mines and the eastern coast of Africa.  

These armed groups use the proceeds generated from the export of these minerals to fund their continued violent quests for control and domination in the Great Lakes Region of Africa (GLR), the results of which include the enslavement of miners and their families, the continuation of brutally persuasive tactics like rape used as a means to quell any uprisings in the community, and general widespread loss of human dignity and life.

This is a controllable phenomenon.

The Enough Project asks you to “prosecute rape as a war crime in both Congo and Sudan”, including providing support for strengthening other aspects of the justice system.  To date, not a single major electronics manufacturer has submitted a formal request from the governments of any of the GLR nations requesting intensive investigations into allegations of rape being used as a mechanism for war.  Given the direct link between this violence and your product, I urge you to consider taking a stand on these issues.  These measures make a difference and all it takes is for you to pick up your pens, write a letter, and send it off.

The future of this issue is determinable.

In addition to the loss of dignity and life incurred by miners and mining communities in the GLR, there exists a serious and foreseeable risk of a deterioration in your brand’s trust and credibility among consumers and investors alike.  In today’s vast and fast paced world of tightly interconnected social spaces, online professional networks, and other technology enabled rapid mass communication mediums like Twitter, failing to sufficiently act to prevent mass murder and rape all so you can build cell phones which, when sold, generate a higher profit margin than phones built from responsibly sourced mines can quickly translate into measurable bottom line losses and equally damaging and significant intangible losses like reduced public trust in your brand. This loss of trust can increase costs, as you might find yourself in the position of having to spend great sums of money to correct your image.  PR blitzes are long and costly, and the impacts of running this risk are too great for shareholders to have to endure.  Not acting to address the issues occurring in your supply chains is a bomb and fuse which only requires a single match to set off a potentially huge negative boom to your profits.  Be the scissors that cuts the fuse.  End this today by taking the steps necessary to create conflict free electronics.  This challenge is conquerable.

Understandably, serious difficulties exist.  The path towards sustainable development requires a commitment to report on activities across the entire spectrum of your supply chain and reaching beyond your own firms activities.  Successfully eliminating conflict minerals from making their way into your products requires that you undertake measures that you hold your own and other firms accountable to.  Every firm at each step of the manufacturing process of your products, from the assembly line all the way back to the mine the minerals were sourced from, must be held accountable.

Though much of the conflict associated with these minerals occurs in mining regions throughout Africa, I do not encourage you to abandon these sources altogether, as these mining communities livelihoods do, in some part, depend on your business as a source of revenue. The Enough Project suggests that the “use the 3 Ts and gold in [your] products should strive to invest in a way that creates shared value for both companies and communities”.

Instead, support and work alongside organizations like the Tin Supply Chain Initiative which exist to improve the logistical and legal operating environment of mines located in high conflict regions.  Organizations are hard at work to promote stronger regional governance on these issues, and your support in these efforts can drastically improve the current situation and grow the number of certifiably conflict free mines in the GLR.

And because no single actor is responsible for every step of the way a mineral takes to get from the mine to the cell phone, it is absolutely imperative that each of you makes a strong commitment to reaching out to and working hand in hand with the companies within your relative spheres of influence[2].  Firms downstream[3] have incredible leveraging power over the majority of actors all the way up the stream to the point of smelters[4].  This means that downstream firms have the power to require each of their suppliers to demand that their suppliers implement and adhere to the same unified set of standards adopted by all actors in this industry in compliance with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance[5].  This compliance by firms at every level should be subject to verification or audit by third party organizations qualified to do so.

This crucial step is one you can take.

No firms upstream from yours would challenge such a directive since it is you whose demands must be met.  You are likely one of this firm’s largest and most influential customers.  I urge you to wield this power for the benefit of your shareholders, stakeholders, and for the protection of the Earth and all future generations.

It is within your power to exert influence on actors within your supply chain, though more than just this is needed if you are to be successful in bringing to market 100% conflict free products. An understandably difficult obstacle to accomplishing the goal of producing conflict-free certified electronics is the process known as smelting:

Smelter/refiner processing is a critical step in the supply chain where distinguishable minerals and metals are converted to indistinguishable metal or derivatives[6].

Smelting makes it difficult to accurately determine which mines the metals were sourced from.  This is due to the fact that metals from many different locations get melted together, rendering the output ultimately untraceable.  And though you established and funded the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) to undertake initiatives such as the Conflict Free Smelter Certification Program, not nearly enough is being done to curb the flow of conflict minerals entering  into your products.  One reason may be the fact that the Conflict Free Smelter Program restricts participation by smelters to only those which melt metals traced back to regions outside of the GLR.  This approach, as noted earlier, does significant harm to the small and fragile economies of mining communities, and it ultimately fails in solving the wider systemic reasons electronic products contain conflict minerals.

As you know, the Frank Dodd Consumer Protection Act makes it unlawful to use conflict minerals in your products.  Despite your past efforts, most of you have yet to list the names of the smelters providing your suppliers with minerals[7].  

Some companies are taking a hands-off approach to instruct

their suppliers to not buy minerals from Congo and the region.

This approach helps cut off armed groups but leaves mining communities in Congo behind. In order to accomplish both goals, more firms should join the Public-Private Alliance, or PPA, invest in projects to source clean minerals that help communities in eastern Congo where it is safe to do so, and support livelihood projects to help mining communities[8].

The firms with which you contract and do business with, including the firms those firms do business with further upstream, ultimately fail to put into place effective safeguards and strategies to prevent these conflict minerals from finding their way into your products.  This failure directly translates into more money flowing into the pockets of militant groups who use these funds to strengthen their stranglehold over the people and mines which are the source of the minerals required for you to build the products that generate revenues and profits for your company and shareholders.  Given your products inextricable link to this issue of conflict minerals, you have a role to play in this.

When you consider this indirectly supportive role your operations have in financing armed groups, not taking measures to exhaust all viable avenues to source responsibly can cause permanent and irreversible damages to your business.  Making a commitment to act, however, deters the capacity building efforts of those currently exerting violence in the GLR.  You have the choice to contribute to or prevent the continued exploitation of an entire region’s inhabitants.

Remember, this is a controllable phenomenon, and only you can act.

Taking the lead on this issue presents an opportunity to build trust and strengthen brand image as the conscious, considerate leader in the electronics industry.  Commercializing the fair and 100% conflict-free smartphone is sure to be a hit with more educated, affluent segments, and doing so could potentially kick start a global trend and massive revenues. Your companies are faced with an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage on this issue going forward.

This is not only an economic opportunity.   An obligation to consumers exists which must be met.  Your license to operate, though implicitly granted by the public, is not irrevocable.  Business has an obligation to not serve unknowing consumers products that destroy lives.  It is up to you as responsible managers, decision makers, and influencers, to improve the outcomes of all stakeholders, not just shareholders.  The benefits of a responsibly envisaged supply chain are incalculable.  The problem that exists is addressable, and human dignity and life rests in the balance. This is a call to action.  Act responsibly.  

Works Cited

“Conflict-Free Smelter Frequently Asked Questions.” EICC®-GeSI Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) Assessment Program, 30 March 2012. Web. 16 October 2013.

Princeton University “About WordNet.” WordNet. Princeton University. 2010. <>

“Social Responsibility.” International Standards Organization, 18 July 2012. Web. 16 October 2013.

“2012 Conflict-Mineral Company Rankings: Detailed Responses.” The Enough Project, 23 August 2012. Web. 16 October 2013.

[1] See ISO pg. 16 for a definition of sustainable development.

[2] See ISO pg. 16 and 28 for a deeper discussion about the importance of “sphere of influence”

[3] downstream firms are those whose interaction with the minerals occurs at a later stage in the minerals life, which begins at the mine. Thus the most upstream firm is the mine, and the most downstream firm is the electronics company who sells the final product to retailers. Author.

[4] Smelter (n):  “an installation or factory for smelting a metal from its ore.” Princeton WordNet

[5] OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas

[6] OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas

[7] see Enough Project

[8] see Enough Project