Smartphones, laptops, and electric car batteries rely on cobalt, most of which comes from Congolese mines that employ children.
The slick, ultra-modern Apple stores and Tesla dealerships that appear in major cities across North America are a far cry from the cramped cobalt mine shafts, crowded marketplaces, and sludge-filled rivers of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); and yet, the presence of the former is entirely reliant on the existence of the latter. Without DRC's dirty and dangerous cobalt industry, our smart devices and electric cars would not exist.
Cobalt is a mineral required for the construction of lithium-ion batteries, an integral part of mobile technology. With the ubiquity of smartphones and laptops, and now the growing popularity of electric vehicles and home batteries, the global demand for cobalt has exploded in the past two years. Its price has quadrupled since 2016, resulting in a sort of gold rush in Lualaba Province, in southern DRC. CNN reports that people are digging up their kitchen floors in search of the mineral.
Aside from obvious concerns about worker health and safety and the environmental impact of this mining frenzy, there is another serious ethical dilemma for companies reliant on cobalt, such as Apple, Samsung, Tesla, BMW, and GM -- the use of child labor. A group of CNN reporters went recently to Congo to get a better sense of the situation.
They found that children are more likely to be found in 'artisanal' mines, where workers "descend 65 feet underground into a narrow, makeshift tunnel equipped with nothing but headlamps and their bare hands." These artisanal mines provide one-fifth of Congo's cobalt, while the rest is produced by regulated industrial mines. CNN reports:
"Apple stopped sourcing from artisanal mines last year in light of these concerns, opting to pay more for cobalt from regulated industrial mines, which have more visibility over their supply chain. They're now reportedly in talks to buy cobalt directly from Congo miners [but] Apple wouldn't comment on these reports to CNN."
Buying directly from Congo miners seems an awful lot like buying from non-regulated artisanal mines, especially if Apple's goal is to reduce cost, but that is not explained in any further detail in the CNN report.
The province of Lualaba is trying to improve the standards and image of its artisanal mines by guarding entrances and offering minerals certified by the government to be free from child labor. But when CNN arrived to film and report in an area where the governor had said child labor had improved, he then warned them to "expect to see some children in the mines." The crew saw children being shooed away as they arrived, and the report contains footage of one boy being struck for being caught on camera.
Many children are employed in washing and sorting ore in rivers to prepare it for sale at the market. There, at Chinese-owned trading houses, bags of cobalt are sold at the daily going rate. CNN notes, "None of [the traders] ask who mined the cobalt, which they will sell to bigger companies to refine and export."
It's a tricky situation. The hunger for cobalt is so great that both governments and companies are reluctant to place any restrictions on it. Analyst Simon Moores said in 2016 that "any crimp in the cobalt supply chain would devastate companies," which is likely why cobalt was oddly left out of a 2010 U.S. law requiring that four Congolese minerals (tin, copper, tungsten, gold) be purchased from mines free from militia control.
Companies have no interest in pursuing greater transparency because it won't turn out well for them in the end; they'll be forced to pay much higher prices by sourcing from regulated industrial mines that have higher operating costs and salaries to pay. Until now, companies managed to get away with it. Consumers' desire for smart devices has overridden their insistence on ethical sourcing, which is why companies like Tesla and Chrysler continue to shrug off responsibility, saying "they are unable to fully map their supply chain due to its 'complex nature'." CNN says that only Renault, Apple, and BMW would reveal suppliers, but even those are vague.
It's difficult to know what the solution is, but, as with everything, change must begin with awareness. Right now many phone-users are scarcely aware of the circumstances in which our devices are made, but it's something we need to start talking about amongst ourselves, as well as demanding answers and better production standards from companies. In the meantime, take a look at Fairphone, a European company that has created a smartphone made from entirely Fairtrade-certified components. The website also contains useful information on recycling old devices.
Hopefully the day will come when the thought of buying a device made partly by a child's hands -- a child who is not attending school because there's more money to be had through working -- is abhorrent enough to make us refuse to buy it. But that would mean gaining control of our societal smartphone addiction, which is no small task.