Electronic devices make our lives better in many ways. However, when we look deeply at their life cycle, it can sometimes raise more questions than it answers.
This blog first appeared in PIWorld on February 6, 2014 (Two Sides to Sustainability by Phil Riebel).
Electronic devices make our lives better in many ways. However, when we look deeply at their life cycle, it can sometimes raise more questions than it answers. A recent article in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine details how electronic devices are fueling corruption and civil unrest in the Congo.
According to the article, The Price of Precious, the minerals in our electronic devices have bankrolled unspeakable violence in the Congo because “militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop—or camera or gaming system or gold necklace—may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.” The Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it—trillions’ worth of natural resources. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world.
The article goes on to detail that in the late 1990s, foreign troops and rebel groups seized hundreds of mines. The rebels funded their brutality with diamonds, gold, tin, and tantalum, a hard, gray, corrosion-resistant element used to make electronics. Eastern Congo produces 20 to 50 percent of the world’s tantalum. In the early 2000s, the fighting stopped but the Congo was left in shambles…
Bridges, roads, houses, schools, and entire families had been destroyed. As many as five million Congolese had died. Peace conferences were hosted, but cordial meetings in fancy hotels didn’t alter the ugly facts on the ground. The United Nations sent in thousands of military peacekeepers—there are around 17,000 today—but the blood continued to flow. Donor nations sank $500 million into an election in 2006—Congo’s first truly inclusive one—but that didn’t change things either.
Sometime around 2008, a critical mass of human rights groups and American lawmakers started asking a crucial question: What about the minerals? What if Congo’s mineral trade could be cleaned up and the rebels shut down? A “blood diamonds” campaign in the late 1990s had exposed how the West African diamond trade was funding rebellions on that side of Africa. What about a similar conflict-minerals campaign for Congo?
America took the lead on making an effective change in mining for any conflict materials and on July 21, 2010, President Barak Obama signed the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill that included a special section on conflict minerals. The law called for publicly listed American companies to disclose whether any of their products included minerals from mines controlled by armed groups in or around Congo. Though Dodd-Frank did not explicitly ban corporations from using Congo’s conflict minerals, it made big companies worry about being linked with what is arguably the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Many leading electronic companies, including Intel, Motorola and HP, had already taken action to understand where the materials were coming from to fuel their products and how they could improve their supply chain. Since the law went into effect, many other companies, but not all, have also made progress auditing their supply chains, according to the Enough Project, an American nonprofit that ranks major company efforts to create a clean minerals trade.
This story makes me look at my smartphone and laptop in a different way. It may also cause more people to doubt claims that electronic media is “green” compared to other alternatives, such as print and paper.
In the end, we all need to challenge ourselves to learn more about the products we use every day. This means purchasing products from companies that lead the way in sustainability and are making efforts to improve their performance and supply chain, whether it is print, paper or electronic devices.