How to offset your 'conflict mineral' guilt

By Kate Dailey
BBC News Magazine

image captionChildren wash copper at a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo

"Conflict minerals" that help fuel war in the Democratic Republic of Congo often end up in the most popular electronic gadgets. Can consumers offset their guilt by using the smartphone as a tool of change?

When students at Duke University wanted to encourage Apple CEO Tim Cook to produce a line of conflict-free products by 2013, they shot a video imploring the Duke alumnus to take a stand. Then they uploaded the video to YouTube.

Many people then watched that video on a laptop or smartphone containing materials mined in conflict-heavy areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The contrast highlights the unique challenges of the growing campaign to end the use of "conflict minerals" in personal technology.

"As our devices get smaller and faster, they require some specialised minerals," says Sasha Lezhnev, a policy consultant for the Enough project, a non-governmental organisation which focuses on genocide and crimes against humanity.

"A significant portion of the minerals that accomplish those tasks come directly from Eastern Congo war zones."

He cites the three Ts: tantalum, tin, and tungsten, all of which can be extracted from minerals located in the DRC.

Tantalum is needed for most portable electronic devices: for instance, it's used in capacitors that facilitate text messaging and other mobile phone capabilities. The circuit boards on most electrical devices use tin and copper, both of which are also mined in Eastern Congo, while tungsten is an important conductor.

Because these resources are in such high demand, the mines are often controlled by Congolese warlords, who use the profits to fund more violence, says Mr Lezhnev.

The demand for profits contributes to dangerous working conditions, in which miners, often children, work gruelling hours in unstable shafts.

Not all mines fund the warlords, and some in fact have the potential to make a large positive impact on the Congolese economy. But many are dangerous and deadly, and have attracted the attention of activists and politicians.

A consumer paradox

Notably, it is thanks to the web that more people than ever are aware of conflict minerals.

"We're sitting here with a wealth of information about products which themselves are much more complex, and we're able to track back the products and their components further than we've been able to trace them back before," says Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

But for consumers eager to act on this new knowledge, two problems emerge.

The first is that the large American companies which sell the finished product do not deal with the mines directly.

Those companies buy parts from smaller companies, which in turn often buy the minerals after they have been mined. That makes it difficult to determine where the minerals originated - and easy for companies to establish plausible deniability.

"Manufacturers really have done quite a lot to create a system that absolves themselves," says Josh Dorfman, creator of the Lazy Environmentalist website.

The second, larger, problem, is that there is no true conflict-free phone or laptop currently on the market.

So what is a conflicted consumer to do?

Luckily, the answer does not involve switching off smartphones.

Rather than stage a boycott, people who don't want their purchases to fund conflict minerals are now protesting with the very technology they hope to improve.

Unified voice

"The funny thing about product boycotts is that it can be difficult to get your voice heard. If it is heard, it can be difficult to articulate the message clearly," says Kyle Whitaker, manager of SustainAbility, a think-tank focused on enacting social change.

image captionThe Dodd-Frank bill, signed into law by President Obama, has provisions to help curb conflict mining

More effective than making a non-statement by refusing to purchase an item, says Mr Whitaker, is combining voices and resources to get a company's attention.

One way to do that, he says, is through socially conscious investments. The other is by letting companies know their products are in demand, and that conflict-free technology is important.

And in this case, the very technology that activists want to improve is a major force in unifying and amplifying their demands.

"In a world where brand and reputation is so important to companies, your voice can be much more powerful than your dollars," says Mr Hanson.

"Photos and videos are a powerful part of the voice, and therefore the particular devices that allow us to shoot video and photo around the world via Twitter and text are very valuable."

At a conference on conflict minerals held in December in Washington DC, activists and policy makers alike typed notes on tablets while others tweeted on smartphones. Some handed out promotional DVDs burned on laptops.

Online petitions on seek signatures calling for more sustainable technology. A website launched in November helps establish more transparency in the mines.

JD Stier, campaign manager for the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign, says his phone is an essential tool.

"I have a map out for a business meeting, I'm on a conference call, and am shooting out texts at the same time," he says. "I couldn't imagine my job without it."

Shifting attitudes

Indeed, the indispensable nature of smartphones and laptops is part of the reason some activists feel so drawn to this campaign.

"I've been involved with a lot of different human rights causes and a lot of different issues. This one especially captured my attention because of the direct connection I have," says Stefani Jones. She is a Duke University student and chair of the Conflict Free Campus organisation which sent the YouTube message to Tim Cook.

"To the extent that my phone is, in part, funding the war in the Congo, I want to play a part in enacting change," she says.

Technology companies are starting to respond. Apple just released a list of all its vendors and announced it has become a member of the Fair Labor Association.

Companies like Motorola, HP and Intel are working to develop mines outside of the war zones, says Mr Lezhnev. The goal is to develop more secure mines within the war zones to help empower residents and improve the local economy.

The Dodd-Frank act, financial legislation passed by the US Congress in 2011, has a provision that requires US companies to determine the origin of their minerals and then disclose their supply chain. Though the act has yet to take full effect, several companies have already begun the process, and the UN recently reported that the effects are already being seen in the DRC.

That is good news to Mr Stier, who says that technology at its best connects us all to the world around us - and gives us a sense of responsibility to our fellow citizens.

"We have a meaningful connection all the way back to the mine, and we want to use the leverage we have as users of these products," he says.

"The technology we have here can be be a force of positive development around the world."