Where's Your Money Really Going?
For more than 15 years, a savage war has raged in the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing more than 5.4 million people in a conflict funded in large part by the country’s rich store of mineral resources, like cassiterite (tin ore), coltan (tantalum ore), wolframite (tungsten ore) and gold.
“Every time we use a cell phone or a computer, minerals that may have been sourced from eastern Congo's deadly war zone are at work,” said Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst with the Enough Project. “When we send a text message, it's tantalum. When we turn on our computer, all four conflict minerals are firing up, from gold to tin to tungsten to tantalum.”
For years, groups like The Enough Project and Global Witness have worked to bring about awareness of the conflict mineral trade. In 2010, they won a victory when President Barack Obama signed the Dodd-Frank financial reform act into law. Among other things, Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank made it mandatory for companies to disclose the existence of conflict minerals in their supply chain.
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The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission officially adopted Section 1502 in August 2012, setting a deadline of May 2014 for companies to submit their first disclosure reports. The SEC estimates that it will cost companies initially $3 to $4 billion to meet compliance, and around $200 million per year thereafter.
Though the ruling has drawn praise from human rights groups, it has drawn ire from business associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, who are challenging the ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
In a statement, the groups said that it understands the seriousness of the war in the Congo, but that “the final conflict mineral rule imposes an unworkable, overly broad and burdensome system that will undermine jobs and growth and may not achieve Congress’s overall objectives.”
Lezhnev, however, says that the legislation, along with responsible mining projects from tech companies like Intel, HP and Philips, have already reduced armed groups’ profits from tin, tungsten and tantalum by roughly 65%.
But there’s still more to do, and consumers have a role to play in reducing the demand for products containing conflict minerals. Look around your home, and you’re likely to see a number of household items that contain one, if not all, of the conflict minerals identified in Dodd-Frank. Here are just some, along with information on how to find conflict-free alternatives.
Your DVD Player: Tin (cassiterite)
According to Congo expert David Barouski, the Congo contains about a third of the word’s total cassiterite ore reserves and produces about 4% of the world’s tin supply. Tin is frequently used as a solder for circuit boards in household electronics like cell phones, personal computers and DVD players.
Cassiterite mining is an informal and unregulated industry; miners generally work by hand with pickaxes and shovels, and the trade is a notorious employer of children, since their small bodies can easily squeeze into the mine’s narrow tunnels. A 2008 expose from The Financial Times reported that some miners are forced to spend 72 hours in tunnels just 70 centimeters in diameter.
Conflict-Free Alternative: The industry-wide Conflict-Free Tin Initiative was founded to support responsible sourcing and development in the Congo. The initiative shipped its first batch of certified cassiterite from the Kalimi mine in South Kivu, Congo, in October 2012. Pledged buyers include Royal Philips Electronics, Tata Steel, Motorola Solutions, Blackberry, Alpha, AIM Metals & Alloys, Malaysia Smelting Corporation Berhad (MSC), Traxys, Fairphone and ITRI.
Your Light Bulb Tungsten (wolframite)
Filaments in conventional light bulbs contain tungsten, a dense metal used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products, from bullets to race cars to the yellowish glaze on ceramic products. Because tungsten can absorb a high amount of heat without melting, it is often used in aerospace applications as well.
According to The Enough Project, armed groups in the Congo make about $2 million per year on sales of wolframite, the ore used to make tungsten.
Instead: Energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) aren’t just better for the environment; they are also tungsten-free. Plus, CFLs use just a sixth of the electricity and last 12 times as long as conventional tungsten bulbs. The EPA has a handy consumer guide for learning more.
Your Hearing Aid: Tantalum (coltan)
Short for columbite-tantalite, coltan is a mineral that when refined becomes a heat-resistant powder capable of holding a high electric charge. It is regularly used for energy-storing devices or capacitors, which are used in a wide range of products, including camera lenses, ink jet printers, airbag protection systems and hearing aids.
According to Friends of the Congo, the DRC contains about 64% of the world’s coltan supply, and militias from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are the primary exploiters of the mineral.
Instead: In July 2011, Motorola Solutions announced the Solutions for Hope project, a pilot initiative to source conflict-free tantalum from the Congo. Other participants in the project include AVX, FairPhone, Flextronics, Foxconn, HP, Intel and Nokia.
Your Jewelry: Gold
According to The Enough Project, gold is now the most lucrative conflict mineral in the Congo. Compared to the “3Ts,” gold is easier to illegally transport and fetches a higher rate per gram.
"Gold is very portable,” a Congolese border agent told the Associated Press. “You don't need a large quantity to make a lot of money.”
While only 23 kilograms of gold were officially exported from eastern Congo in the first half of 2012, it is estimated that two to four tons were smuggled out illegally. This gold then ends up in our personal electronics, TVs, printers, cameras, eyeglasses, coins and gold jewelry.
Instead: In October 2012, the World Gold Council released a Conflict-Free Gold Standard, in an effort to eliminate conflict gold from the market. It will likely take years before the provisions of the standard are implemented. In the meantime, consider purchasing your jewelry from designers that use recycled gold, such as Brilliant Earth and Leber Jeweler.