Photo by Mark Craemer
Tucked into the financial reform bill that passed this week is a provision many sustainable electronics advocates will be happy about. Publicly-traded companies and electronics corporations will now be required to reveal whether or not they use "conflict-free" minerals. Even though that means they can still use the materials, they have to be forthright in stating such, which will put a serious damper on any new product releases that have to state, "Yep, materials in this cell phone helped fund rape and war."According to CNN, the bill doesn't specify any sort of punishment for using the minerals, but just that companies have to certify where their minerals come from, what measures were put in place to ensure the source is not a conflict zone, and post the information on their company websites.
"This is a step in the right direction," said Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a senior research fellow at Makerere University in neighboring Uganda, who regularly visits Congo. "It protects the interests of the Congolese ... a lot of minerals are going to be certified, and the law will do away with fly-by-night businesses and introduce bona fide companies that don't infringe on the rights of the the people."
Indeed, it will change not just the certification policy but also the pricing. Mining Weekly reports that the price of tantalum oxide will go up as the market experiences a supply squeeze.
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Business Week writes that Global Witness, an advocacy group, is suing the British government for not recommending that UK companies face UN sanctions for buying conflict minerals, and thus putting the responsibility manufacturers, not just the suppliers, for where they get their materials.
The law is clearly aimed at minerals coming out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is rich in minerals used in electronics, such as tantalum and coltan. Some experts express concern that such disclosures could end up harming poor Congolese people who rely on the sale of minerals for jobs and an income. It is much the same argument that not buying clothes made from sweatshops just means that people will be out of jobs, not that sweatshops -- or rather, poverty and human rights abuses -- will go away. Again, the law doesn't state that manufacturers can't use minerals purchased from conflict zones, but simply that they must certify and inform consumers of the origins of the materials used in the electronics.
Another argument that calls into question the effectiveness of this legislation in quelling the conflicts in the Congo is more convincing. Laura Seay argues that the new law will prove to be ineffective because there are other sources of revenue for the rebel groups, and even if it were to pull funding from them, they'd likely not stop terrorizing the population.
That may very well end up being the case, but even so, the new law at least requires a heightened level of manufacturer responsibility on how their products impact human rights, right down to the beginning of the supply chain.
So far we've had to just cross our fingers and hope companies mean it when they say, as Steve Jobs recently did, "We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict [free] materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem."
While this law isn't as tough as requiring chemical tracing of materials, at least the certification is required, and put in the public eye for scrutiny.
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