Solving the Hidden Conflict Problem in Your Electronics

Solving the Hidden Conflict Problem in Your Electronics

By Barbara Fletcher


Because companies are stepping up to make peace with your phone.

By Barbara Fletcher

You may not even realize it, but many of the components that make our smartphones smart — like the microprocessors that cause them to vibrate — require small amounts of four materials that have historically caused big problems like war, genocide and other crimes against humanity. These materials, called 3TG — for tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold — are also known as “conflict minerals,” because they come from volatile regions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo where armed groups have seized control of mines and use the profits to fund continued violence. According to the Enough Project, an advocacy group dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity:

Conflict minerals sales generate as much as $183 million annually for armed groups.

In response, some manufacturers have been stepping up to ensure that their supplies are conflict-free. However, it is crucial that these companies commit to sourcing responsibly from Congo instead of just pulling out of the region. While acquiring ore from outside conflict zones might reduce militia financing, it could also negatively impact legitimate mining in the region and leave families without livelihoods. 

“Many companies have made progress in recent years toward developing more transparent supply chains and responsible sourcing programs,” says Annie Callaway, advocacy and activist manager at the Enough Project. Callaway cites several “positive” developments in this area, including the involvement of major manufacturers, public-private partnerships and third-party audits of smelters — the gateway between unrefined ore and the marketplace — that hold them responsible for documenting the origin of all the ore they purchase. Intel Corporation, for example, uses an industry-standard document called the Conflict Minerals Reporting Template to identify the smelters in their supply chain, explains Andreina Rojas, conflict minerals outreach specialist at Intel Corporation. They assess the smelters instead of the mines because “they are the ‘pinch point’ in the supply chain — after the mined ore is refined, it is impossible to know where it came from.” 

Another solution: the “bag and tag” program. Bar-coded tags are applied to bags of ore from certified conflict-free mines, allowing them to be audited and checked against logs along the way. This helps prevent smuggled ore from entering the supply chain and dissuades armed factions from robbing miners of their bags. Intel Corporation, in partnership with the Enough Project, is one of the largest manufacturers to use the system. After introducing the world’s first conflict-free microprocessors in January 2014, they’re now on track to validate their broader product line as conflict-free this year. 

And there’s been considerable progress. More than 70 percent of the world’s smelters for 3TG minerals have passed conflict-free audits. A record amount of certified conflict-free tantalum was exported from Eastern Congo in 2015. And, the Enough Project reports, the price of noncertified ore has dropped by as much as 30 to 60 percent below that of its conflict-free counterpart. Miner incomes have risen while armed militia profits have dropped by 55 percent

But there are other challenges too. Gold remains especially hard to certify because it’s highly valuable and easily smuggled in small quantities — think transport in pockets versus trucks. Artisanal and small-scale gold mines, “while small in yield, are vast in number,” says Leah Butler, program director of the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI), which makes them “challenging to account for and to validate.” And conflict minerals can be sourced in many different places, Rojas explains. There’s no bag-and-tag system available in Peru, for example. Additionally, a January 2015 letter from the United Nations Security Council noted that although smuggling has declined, it is still generating profit for the Congolese army, and some mines remain in the control of armed factions. 

Overall, though, there is reason to be hopeful about progress. Callaway cites companies like Intel as proof positive of the concept. There are challenges to developing conflict-free supply chains, but these “do not mean the task is ultimately impossible,” she says. And companies — who are also competitors — know “it’s their responsibility to work together toward our shared goal: cutting off profit lines from armed militias in the DRC,” says Rojas.