Conflict minerals from eastern Congo's war zone will be in our holiday gift stockings this year in our smartphones, flatscreen TVs, and video game systems, but is there any difference among the companies that make them?
After two years of working to educate the largest electronics firms on the fact that circuit board parts and connecting wires are being sourced in part from a war zone that causes women to be gang-raped in Congo, we decided to survey these companies for concrete steps they were taking on conflict minerals.
The results? Sadly, after two years of public education on conflict minerals, when major Wall Street investors have demanded supply chain reforms, when university campuses from Stanford to Tennessee to Yale have started to pass resolutions on conflict minerals, a third of major electronics companies are still turning a blind eye to these issues, including Nintendo, Sharp, Panasonic and Canon. The Enough Project released its rankings of electronics companies' actions on conflict minerals last week, which highlights these results: "Getting to Conflict-Free: Assessing Corporate Action on Conflict Minerals".
In Congo, war is money. Many armed commanders live in lavish mansions, rent Concord supersonic planes for their business partners, and avoid arrest by would-be seekers of justice. Much of this perversion is due to the hundreds of millions of dollars per year that the warlords make from minerals that go into electronics, as they control mines and trading routes of the 3 Ts, tin, tantalum, tungsten, as well as gold. Women bear the brunt of these militias, and I met several of them in the region this year who had been raped more than a dozen times by armed groups.
Some companies have listened to the call. Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Motorola have led a push by electronics companies since 2009 to trace back where their suppliers source minerals from. They have started to audit suppliers and conduct extra checks to ensure they are not hiding the true origins of their minerals. Some firms have even pushed for legislation to control the trade: RIM, the makers of the Blackberry, as well as Dell, AMD, and Motorola.
These efforts are laudable. While corporations cannot resolve the war in Congo on their own, their commercial decisionmaking power acts as a tremendous weight on the deadly commanders in eastern Congo. If these companies say "No, we won't buy minerals from Congo or its neighbours, unless our suppliers can prove that they were sourced from clean mines," it sends a direct market signal to the commanders that they will face tremendous difficulties selling their minerals.
Even China is playing its part. Three major Chinese tantalum processors have signed up to the electronics industry audit, agreeing to inspections that most refiners would view as intrusive. Why? Because the electronics companies listed on US stock exchanges – both foreign and domestic – are the holy grail for suppliers around the world; they pay a healthy premium for quality components and high purity minerals. Global suppliers still want to sell to this global marketplace, and global companies such as Intel are starting to set global standards for supplier responsibility that all companies have to meet.
Despite the action of leading companies, some companies still refuse to acknowledge the problem. Nintendo is one of them. Nintendo has still not joined the Intel-led group that is conducting the audits and has not publicly acknowledged that it even have a role in the solution to the issue. With $US4 billion in revenues last year, you would think that Nintendo might have a few pennies left over to send auditors to its suppliers.
Buying a TV or digital camera this holiday season? Sharp, Panasonic and Canon have also closed their eyes to the problem. None of these firms supported legislation on conflict minerals, none of them has joined the industry-wide audits, and none of them has traced deeply into its supply chain. Nintendo and the other companies should start by investigating their own supply chains, and join with other end-user companies to push for a comprehensive certification initiative analagous to the Kimberley Process for blood diamonds.
Moreover, other industrial users of conflict minerals need to radically step up their attention to the issue. Jewellery, automotive, aerospace and industrial machinery companies are secondary major consumers of the 3 Ts and gold, yet have done little to nothing over the past two years to root out conflict minerals out of their supply chains. Jewellers have helped deal with the experience of blood diamonds, and it's now time they turn their attention to conflict gold.
If companies and consumers make responsible decisions about whether they source their minerals from war zones or not, they can help cut off the finances of some of the deadliest armed groups in the world. If war is money in Congo, a cut off of funds will help lead to an end to the war. Nintendo, it's time to take responsibility for your purchases. Gamers this holiday season will remember you for your actions.
Sasha Lezhnev is Policy Advisor at the Enough Project and author of the book Crafting Peace: Strategies to Deal with Warlords in Collapsing States.
Kotaku readers can learn more about conflict minerals in tech products, and take action for corporate social responsibility, at www.raisehopeforcongo.org.