The conditions for workers assembling the dizzying number of electronics goods churned out by major manufacturers in Asia may frequently make the news, but the use of conflict materials has not yet grabbed headlines in the same way.
A report from the Enough Project highlights the problems of ethically produced electronics going deep into the supply chain, with many major manufacturers using materials sourced in conflict zones. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, tin and other materials used in electronics are mined and sold in regions where wars still rage. In many cases sale of such materials contribute to the funding of fighting for groups like M23 in Congo, fighting that displaces and kills countless numbers caught in the middle.
Conflict tin, for example, has been worth around $115 million a year to armed forces in the Congo, who then smuggle the materials through Rwanda for sale, according to the Enough Project. Gold, tungsten and tantalum are other materials that are used to fund fighting in the region, and often to go on to be used in smartphones, laptops and other products which are then sold throughout the world.
According to the Enough Project there are firms which are trying to rid their supply chains of conflict minerals.
Intel is one that was highlighted as doing better than most. According to the Enough Project’s criteria, it ticked 60 percent of the boxes for reducing conflict mineral usage, including making sure it traces and audits suppliers. This is an increase from 24 percent in 2010, but still far from the chips being conflict free, according to the report.
Apple, despite the bad publicity over poor working conditions at supplier Foxconn, was relatively well regarded according to this report. HP, SanDisk, Phillips, and AMD are also at the higher end of the spectrum.
However, very few meet even half of the criteria set aside by the Enough Project.
Canon, Nikon and Sharp met eight percent of the criteria, while HTC was managed just four percent.
The lowest, however, was Nintendo – deemed to have made “no known effort” to trace materials used in the supply of its devices. TechEye approached Nintendo for a comment but it has not replied.
In a statement provided to CNN, the Japanese firm said that it outsources manufacturing of all its products to production partners and “is not directly involved” in the sourcing of raw materials that it eventually uses.
Nevertheless it said that it takes social responsibilities strongly, and expects production partners “to do the same”.
According to Enough Project policy analyst, and lead author of the report, Sasha Lezhnev, there is increasing public awareness on the topic of conflict mineral in consumer electronics, though “the movement is likely to grow even further”, Lezhnev said, speaking with TechEye.
“Everyone has a personal connection to the war in eastern Congo through their cell phone or computer, but not everyone knows it yet,” Lezhnev said. “The good news is that there is something that each of us can do to make a difference and help companies not turn a blind eye to the abuses in their supply chains.”
Lezhnev urges that consumers reach out to electronics manufacturers and ask them to go conflict-free by “tracing, auditing, and certifying their supply chains”, adding that action can also be taken more directly at www.raisehopeforcongo.org.
According to Lezhnev, the group’s efforts are having an effect. Profits for three of the four armed groups dealing in conflict minerals have dropped by 65 percent this year. Lezhnev believes, however, the fight is “far from over, as minerals-driven violence continues”, and would welcome more input from the US administration on the challenges faced.