July 31st, 2010

I’m typing on an Apple MacBook Pro while data backups are running in the background; gigabytes of images and video are flitting from Seagate to Lacie to Netgear hard drives. I have a Belkin router, a Comcast modem…I have all the accouterments of technology I need to capture content and publish in a digital world. What I don’t have is peace of mind.

I’ve spoken about and written about this before and, increasingly, so are many others. We are talking about conflict minerals, those metals essential to the electronics industry and our everyday conveniences. These metals also pay for ongoing war and sexual violence. As a consumer, I feel powerless to affect such a global issue. But, it is becoming easier to see how our role in the killing and what we can do to stop it. Like many things, it starts with transparency and accountability, through knowledge and conversation.

Jobs_EnoughProjectApple CEO Steve Jobs, as reported by Wired, recently responded to a customer about conflict minerals in Apple products. The customer wrote:

“Are you currently making any effort to source conflict-free minerals? In particular, I’m concerned that Apple is getting tantalum, tungsten, tin, and gold from Eastern Congo through its suppliers.”

Jobs’ brief, ostensibly personal, response stated, “We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few (sic) materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure.”

Wired was unable to verify the authenticity of the letter.

In 2009, Bloomberg News reported reported on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her seven-country trip in Africa, where she pledged to help the Democratic Republic of Congo keep its mineral wealth from funding ongoing violence. Now, on the heels of President Obama’s commitment to force US companies into transparency in mineral sourcing, which is tucked into a 2,300 page financial regulation bill, Clinton stated:“I directed the State Department to develop a holistic strategy on this issue as part of our broader effort to engage effectively with the DRC.”

The new law, as reported by the Washington Post, “requires American companies to submit an annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing whether their products contain gold, tin, tungsten or tantalum from Congo or adjacent countries. If so, they have to describe what measures they are taking to trace the minerals’ origin…The law does not impose any penalty on companies who report taking no action. But the disclosures must be made publicly on firms’ Web sites.”

These public disclosures can be buried deep behind a wall of corporate PR or they can be employed as a tool emphasizing the company’s corporate social responsibility. I think what’s going to matter are two things: first, how aware the public, with its buying power, is to conflict minerals and second, how committed a company is to more than the bottom line. I think this comes back to the issue of awareness: one person embedded within the corporate structure can only do so much; he or she must have a workplace environment supportive of human rights and environmental and social responsibility in order to affect measurable change.

kristof-190In July, Newsweek took a stab at conflict minerals with this piece “The Genocide Behind Your Smart Phone,” bringing its readers into the chain of responsibility. And, of course, where would we be if NY Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristof wasn’t talking about it, both in “Death by Gadget” and “Orphaned, Raped, Ignored.

The United Nations has its own contribution, weighing in with informative but typically dry reports, like their UN Report on the DRC from this UN Group of Experts on the DRC, in which the experts link mineral mining and export to the funding of conflict and prevalence of sexual violence. The report states:

“The Group investigated FDLR’s [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a largely Rwandan-Hutu rebel group based in eastern DRC responsible for, along with DRC government forces, substantial human rights abuses] ongoing exploitation of natural resources in the Kivus, notably gold and cassiterite reserves [the primary ore for tin], which the Group calculates continues to deliver millions of dollars in direct financing into the FDLR coffers…This report shows that end buyers for this cassiterite include the Malaysia Smelting Corporation, and the Thailand Smelting and Refining Company, which is held by Amalgamated Metals Corporation, based in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” (in case the above link doesn’t work–sometimes it doesn’t–the document is the final report dated November 2009, document number S/2009/603, at this link:

Our phones–our electronics–use minerals which may have been mined using labor, forced through violence or threat of violence, for little to no compensation. I, as a consumer, cannot make an educated choice about the minerals I use because there is little transparency. After all, how many Apple iPhone 4 buyers are going to read that UN report and do the research to see if the Chinese companies manufacturing the phone are purchasing metals from the a fore-mentioned smelters?

You see, conflict minerals work kind of like the human trafficking market, an issue I’ve closely followed, and even includes components of human trafficking and slave labor. It is convoluted and complex; there are many points where abuses can occur, and many layers we can use to remove ourselves from the abuse. It goes something like this:

• global market needs mineral resource
• country has mineral resource, is politically unstable, corrupt, or at war
• mineral is extracted as ore by slaves, soldiers, or legitimately
• ore is transported–here it may be taxed by rebels, warlords, government forces
• ore may also be smuggled from conflict country subject to trade embargoes to a neighboring non-conflict country
• profits from the transport or sale of the ore are used to purchase more weapons, arming more soldiers or warlords, and fueling an ongoing fight for power, more resources, or oppression
• abroad, ore is smelted, combined with other, non-conflict sources to produce refined mineral
• mineral is incorporated into consumer goods
• mineral is shipped and sold through retailers to consumers
• net effect is the civilian population in the source country continues to suffer while you and I have our smart phones

It’s not that these tech companies, which need the tantalum, tin, and other minerals for their circuit boards and microchips, are causing the war. Nor is it that these companies are directly funding it either. It’s just really hard, right now, to say where the minerals come from; at the moment the Apples, Dell’s, Nokias, and Sony’s of the world cannot efficiently track minerals to their source. They cannot hold their entire supply chain accountable, but some are trying. This is not a hopeless situation.

blood_diamondDiamonds have a regulating body watching where the diamonds come from; this was in response to diamonds funding wars in Africa (just like the electronics industry). Hollywood took a stab at the issue, with Blood Diamond, where we saw Leonardo DiCaprio crawl toward redemption.

Recent news reports (Newsweek, The Daily Telegraph) announced Zimbabwe is to start exporting diamonds from a mine its government seized from a mining company, couldn’t control as civilians came in to harvest the diamonds, then started a brutal crackdown reported to be rife with human rights abuses including torture and forced labor. Still, the World Diamond Council and the Kimberly Process are going to allow Zimbabwe a limited return to the legal international diamond market. It is by no means perfect, and there is plenty of criticism and suspicion about this move, but I hope it will be an ongoing test of transparency and international monitoring of a conflict mineral.

Enough_logoWhen it comes to electronics, I believe mineral extraction needs to be publicly policed by a combination of non-government, government, and corporate entities. The NGO’s are already there. In the last several years, governments have come on board and, recently, corporations are becoming more transparent in addressing the issues they face in mineral sourcing.

sorosFor example, Raise Hope for Congo, an Enough Project campaign, is currently focused on educating and increasing public awareness. Another NGO, the Open Society Institute, created by investor George Soros, stresses transparency in the article “Transparency Can Alleviate Poverty.

EITI_logoThe Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a collaboration of government and private industry, sets standards for transparency in oil, gas, and mining; essentially, who is mining what, from where, how much they’re paying for it, and who that money goes to. When it comes to government-only action, the new financial industry reform bill that Obama just signed, with its conflict minerals passage, is the first of its kind and gives the government more power to pressure companies into transparency.

Yet it’s our consumption habits driving the market. I think the only thing that is truly going to turn the tide is us, the consumer; it’s not that we’re going to do without our smart phones and computers, but we can demand our supply chain to use conflict-free products.

Macintosh_Steve128kcSo here’s my own email to Apple CEO Steve Jobs:


I am a multimedia journalist and producer and a loyal Apple customer since my first computer, a Macintosh 128k. Today, the Apple products I own are integral to the storytelling work I do. I applaud Apple for its solid, thoughtfully designed products and especially want to thank you for making computers that are recyclable and PVC, BFR, arsenic, and mercury free.

“In today’s marketplace image is everything, and Apple has defined itself as an innovative leader in the computing and smart phone industry. Will Apple apply that same problem-solving and creativity to the issue of conflict minerals? Apple could be a leader not only in computing, but also in transparency and accountability for the electronics industry; you, Steve, can help bring an end to conflict minerals. I believe Apple can do this by telling a compelling and truthful story about sourcing conflict-free minerals. My question to you, is whether you believe your customers can handle the truth, and if you’re willing to take that risk.” video added to this post on August 26, 2010:

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  1. tim says:

    Well, Steve Jobs (or whomever handles the sjobs@ account at Apple) gave a same-day response to my email. The answer didn’t directly address my question, but it falls within the ballpark.

    Steve says:

    “We are looking into it. It’s not clear how to trace the minerals so as to know their origin. We are working with a few world-class universities to see if we can trace them. The supply chain appears too porous to control through auditing.

    Sent from my iPhone”

    And this was my response:


    Thank you for your quick response, I appreciate it. I’m glad that Apple is looking into solutions in an effort to divest itself from conflict minerals. I hope transparency and accountability are part of the equation. Having worked in the field of human trafficking, I understand how complex an issue this must be, and how difficult it is to communicate to the public.

    Because it matters to me, I wish you success in finding a solution.

    Best Regards,

    I’ve read (and been told by those in the know) that efforts are being made to track minerals at the smelter level, but considering that the mining in the DRC isn’t on the scale of, say, Appalachian hilltop removal for coal, and is largely done by hand, I could see how it would be difficult to track minerals to their source. And to differentiate legitimate sources from conflict sources from the same region.

  2. tim says:

    The email dialog continued until late in the evening, with Steve Jobs replying:

    “It’s not about communicating to the public. It’s about stopping to use such minerals.”

    While I’m unsure if it’s actually Steve Jobs I was communicating with, or a PR team posing as Steve Jobs in order to contribute to Apple’s branding through selective email interactions with the public, this was one of my responses:

    “What I am taking away from this exchange is that Apple is not as concerned about showing the public what it is doing with respect to conflict minerals, it is more concerned with finding a solution. While I will communicate this in my interactions with the public, I do encourage Apple to add to the growing dialog about conflict minerals, and the difficulty of eradicating them, for I believe the public needs to understand. Apple, and Steve Jobs, have a powerful voice with broad reach.”

    I guess, as a journalist and non-fiction storyteller by trade, and with my experience as a non-profit founder, I believe it is important not just to “do” but to help people understand why it’s being done.


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