Thanks to the global effort to ban conflict diamonds, which kicked off in the late ’90s, we now think twice about ringing in the bling. But it’s not only what’s on our fingers, but what’s at our fingertips that we need to worry about; our laptops, phones and other gadgets. Put succinctly, many of our tech must-haves contain components made of minerals dug from mines in the most violent and conflicted places on earth.
While conflict diamonds now make up a smaller amount of the diamond trade today, minerals such as tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, mined in Central Africa for consumer electronics, have become the focus of corporate social sustainability in the tech world. In the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), government troops and rebel groups have fought to control mines and smuggling routes since the armed conflict began in 1998. According to reports, violent militia groups are largely financed – to the tune of an estimated US$185 million a year – through the illicit trade of minerals, and these groups have caused the deaths of millions of people. The issue has recently been given extra heat by House of Cards star Robin Wright, who launched the #StandWithCongo campaign with Congolese and American activists to end the controversial practice.
In May this year, GreenBiz.com called the supply chain the new ‘sustainability hotspot’ and, to this end Apple, which uses many of these minerals in its mobile-phone processors, motherboards and screen displays, has reached what it’s calling a milestone in supply-chain transparency, saying it’s now auditing 100 per cent of its suppliers for the use of conflict minerals linked to militia groups in the DRC. The company says that as well as third-party audits, “we intend to report incidents related to armed groups whenever they apply to our supply chain, and seek resolution with the appropriate authorities.” Along with Hewlett-Packard Co. and Intel (who unveiled conflict free micro-processors in 2014), Apple has overcome supplier resistance and gruelling conditions to certify a large number of smelters worldwide, who are not using conflicted ore from the DRC. Additionally, Apple has partnered with the International Organization for Migration, which educates migrant workers about their workplace rights and, like Konica Minolta, Intel and HP, is a member of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition.
But as Apple and other companies have discovered, it’s not easy being green and it’s even harder being transparent when your suppliers employ more than 1.6 million workers in 20 countries. Social sustainability encompasses ethical, environmental and human rights issues – from the mines all the way to the slick retail spaces where we buy the end product. Consequently, managing ethical sourcing through such a complex supply chain is an especially difficult ongoing battle for tech companies.
Laura McManus, ethical supply chain management consultant at Konica Minolta Australia, highlights the fact that, while the DRC is given the most focus, there are 19 countries identified as using forced labour in the extraction and production of seven key minerals used in electronics.
“Major brands do not yet have visibility over the extraction process,” says Laura frankly, “but many, like Konica Minolta, are making genuine efforts through the implementation of a Conflict Minerals Policy or similar.”
Following mineral extraction and ownership trades, the next ethically fragile stage is smelting and component manufacturing. It’s at this point in the supply chain that migrant workers are most at risk – in fact, according to a 2014 survey of 500 migrant workers in Malaysia by Verité, an organisation working on supply chain accountability, one third of migrant workers in the country’s electronics industry were in a situation of forced labour, raising freedom and living wage concerns. Abusive labour practices in which passports are taken away, and high recruitment fees paid by the worker, are now being lit up by the social sustainability spotlight.
“In the electronic sector there’s a high population of migrant workers who may be vulnerable to situations of exploitative or forced labour. Parts of the process are often outsourced and major companies have less visibility over production,” explains Laura. “Having transparency and visibility over first-tier suppliers is a good place to start, but it’s not necessarily where the most egregious labour and human rights violations occur. They can be multiple supplier tiers down and in some cases deliberately hidden from even the most well-intentioned companies.”
Yet Alice Cope, executive manager of the Global Compact Network Australia, adds that social sustainability debates over issues such as the provision of a living wage are relevant in developed nations too. “We hear about workers in major retail chains in the US needing food stamps even though they are working full-time. And here in Australia we’ve had wage issues with 7/11 stores.” Last year, Al Jazeera reported on illegal conditions regarding health, safety and wages facing Californian garment workers.
“When I think about what social sustainability means, it is managing and identifying both the positive and negative impact that a business has on people,” says Alice. “So it covers the full range of human rights issues – labour-related issues including a living wage, health and safety, gender equality, Indigenous rights [through] to impacts on consumers and communities. Social sustainability also links in with environmental issues such as climate change and water stewardship, issues of governance and corruption, and how businesses can engage around broader societal issues such as the global refugee crisis and sustainable development.
“So, while social and environmental issues are often seen and managed separately, they are in fact increasingly difficult to separate.”
Alice, a former corporate lawyer, works with Australian businesses and government on social sustainability issues that range from the environment to anti-corruption. In 2015, the UK government passed the Modern Slavery Act; the US introduced the consumer protection Dodd-Frank Act (which requires disclosure of conflict minerals) back in 2010. Increasingly, corporations are initiating social sustainability measures – if only because they can see the (business) writing on the wall as consumers increasingly demand ethical and environmental transparency.
“Millennials are actively looking for companies that make a positive impact. We are seeing more investors ask questions and activists are shining a light on the issues. It’s increasingly on the radar of boards,” says Alice.
Worldwide, 13,500 companies, universities and not-for-profits are signatories to the UN Global Compact, and 130 of those are in Australia.
“It’s not a compliance initiative,” says Alice. “We don’t audit. It’s a public commitment to demonstrate leadership and report publicly on progress. There are different drivers for why companies do this and there are CEOs who get it; they are passionate and really see their business as a member of society. For others, it’s the strong business case for taking action.”
One of the former is David Cooke of Konica Minolta, who, working with Laura, recently introduced an Ethical Sourcing Roadmap, which they actively encourage other businesses to use. A signatory to the UN Global Compact, David says, “We want to foster collaborative relationships with our suppliers, train our staff on the basics of ethical sourcing, including how human rights fits in, help our clients meet their own responsible sourcing targets and take bold action above bold commitments.”
Acknowledging the depth and breadth of ethical sourcing, David adds, “Our process may not always be perfect and it is a long road ahead, but we are committed to identifying, preventing and working to remedy cases where people involved in our business operations are denied the right to live and work with dignity.”
Somewhere along this long road, both Laura and Alice hope that social sustainability will translate into buyers being realistic about the price of products that have been ethically sourced and produced – or at least realising the real cost of what they buy. It’s already happening with food: last year, a Stanford University study found that coffee shoppers “saw a concrete value in the Fairtrade label.”
“Look at a T-shirt,” says Alice. “Can a $2 T-shirt give the farmer that grows the cotton and the workers who make the T-shirt [a living wage while also] transporting and packaging the product and paying the retail workers here? It’s hard to see how a $2 T-shirt can reflect the social and environmental impact of it and still return a profit at the retail end. Perhaps we should have a price that reflects the cost.”
Collective Hub x Konica Minolta