Your phone just caused a war

The other day, I was sat with this bloke who had an iPhone in his hand. Suddenly he’d pulled the back off to show me what lay inside. Obviously, I was less shocked about what was in there than the fact that he’d killed my favourite gadget in front of my eyes!

He pulled out the battery which revealed the shiny silvery back to the screen, around it I could see the camera, the buttons and an assortment of tiny microchips. He’d pulled the phone apart to show me the various metals and minerals used to make up these circuit boards and to explain the origins of these basic materials.

Metals in phones (and most technology products) include Cassiterite (Tin), Wolframite (Tungsten), Columbite Tantalite and Gold. These are used in various areas across the phone; Tin for example is used to hold the chips in place and Tungsten in the casing that shields from interference. All of these useful metals come from the ground, many of which are found in the ground in Democratic Republic of the Congo and the surrounding countries where people use force and other unjust ways to control the rich land.

There is some regulation on the conditions in which these minerals are extracted, melted and traded however this does not stop illegal processes that mean that extraction can happen in appalling conditions and can make their way on to the global market without being traced. Even today, the bare bones of something in my pocket likely started life in the hands of people who deserve a better way to live. We so often talk about what these gadgets do and how they look but so rarely inspect the physical, material aspects in the same way.

In August 2012  a ruling called the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act was passed in the United States. Section 1502 is titled ‘Conflict Minerals’. It states:

‘It is the sense of Congress that the exploitation and trade of conflict minerals originating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is helping to finance conflict characterised by extreme levels of violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly sexual-and gender-based violence, and contributing to an emergency humanitarian situation therein…’

In response, it is now necessary for any corporation involved in these supply chains to declare whether metals in their products originated as Conflict Minerals from DRC as well as sharing information about the mine from which these minerals were extracted and the facilities used to process them. Any company that is able to prove that the metals they used didn’t come from one of these sources can label their product ‘Conflict Free’.

Companies like Apple, HTC and Samsung have a couple of years to get things in order before submitting their first official annual report and as this graph shows, some of these tech giants are doing better than others:

The Fair Trade label has become a familiar one on international products like tea, chocolate and bananas and this stamp allows us to make a responsible decision about which products we buy. This move towards a mark on tech products is great and the legislation behind it that advocates for people who are at the beginning of the line will hopefully improve each of their lives as well as lowering the likelihood of conflict in these areas.

You can put pressure on these tech companies to speed up this process. Put your hand in your pocket, pull out your mobile, check the logo, then contact that company to ask their policy on conflict minerals. A simple, short email to them will show them that you, their customer is aware of and cares about how your phone is created.

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