Conflict minerals sourcing emerged as a top priority for technology companies after the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act required that companies conduct certain due diligence in the procurement of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold (the “3Ts and a G”). The work done by the leaders helped identify the link between these minerals and armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Their success is due mainly to the fact that metal smelters serve as choke points in the electronics components supply chain, making for a central target for their efforts.
We know that there are also other materials used in the same technology that are associated with serious human rights impacts. Now, a group of the largest tech companies in the world have announced two new initiatives to address the sourcing issues related to cobalt, one of the most widely used of these elements (60% of which is mined in the DRC) and other extractives. With cobalt, serious human rights issues are endemic in its production: extracting the element is dangerous and often unregulated, leading to serious safety and working condition hazards. Furthermore, child labor is prevalent in the mines. In reaction, companies are approaching these issues through two newly-announced initiatives: the Responsible Cobalt Initiative and the Responsible Raw Materials Initiative.
Sony, Apply, and Samsung have already joined the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, which is run by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters. Other large companies, including Tesla, are also considering joining. The group will focus on collaboration to improve transparency and impact change on the ground. But it likely won’t have the advantage found with the 3Ts and a G – there may not be the same smelter choke points that can be tied to the human rights issues.
Separately, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), which has been a key player in sustainable conflict minerals procurement, has announced the Responsible Raw Materials Initiative. Its goal is also to lower rates of child labor and human rights violations during Cobalt extraction and production. Members of this initiative include Dell, Foxconn, Ford Motors, and Apple. Again, can EICC identify a choke point in the supply chain that can be a central target for its efforts?
It has taken years for these companies to begin to act, despite pressure from advocacy groups. Now, action is unfolding relatively rapidly. But the human rights issues associated with cobalt and other extractives may prove vexing if activists and procurers can’t find a choke point in the supply chain to leverage.